Without a Trace:   Eliminating the Danger of Unmarked Weapons

27 Jun

Editor’s Note:   GAPW is pleased to welcome our latest intern from West Point, Cadet Keith Miller.   Keith has joined us for several important UN events, including the recently concluded Biennial Meeting of States on Small Arms.  In this his first post, Keith explores options for secure, durable tracing of small arms and light weapons. 

In the wake of the consensus on the outcome document of the Fifth Biennial Meeting of States on Small Arms (BMS), I found myself digging deeper into the actual mechanisms proposed by the focus of the BMS, the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms (PoA), specifically the International Tracing Instrument (ITI).  It requires that “all marks required under this instrument are on an exposed surface, conspicuous without technical aids or tools, easily recognizable, easily recognizable, durable, and, as far as technically possible, recoverable”.  The main form of identification recommended within the ITI is a numeric or alphanumeric serial number, combined with some form of other geometric symbol, stamped into a component of the weapon.  This post will explore the viability of such an identification system using the guidelines established by the ITI.

The ability to trace illicit small arms and light weapons sales is a key component of the eventual elimination. When a cache of illicit weapons is discovered, there are usually no records as to how the weapons were procured.  However, if there is a universal system by which weapons can be traced, then forensic analysts can use that system to begin piecing together the history of the weapon, tracing it from its manufacture, through multiple legitimate sales and transports, until the weapon eventually vanishes from legal records and enters the illicit arms trade.  From there, investigators can begin determining the events that led to the loss or diversion of the weapon. This search can then lead to the arrest and prosecution of those involved in the illicit sale of arms and in time the elimination of the global trade in illicit weapons.

I began by exploring what I thought was a TV myth concerning the durability of an imprinted serial number.  (According to some popular American crime dramas, an enterprising criminal could remove a weapon’s serial numbers to hinder the progress of investigators.)  In searching for alternatives, I discovered several discussion pages focused on potential ways to remove weapon serial numbers, as well as some ways that a serial number, once removed, might be recovered.  However, the number of techniques that are available, especially to well funded transnational crime organizations and other violent non state actors, could easily overcome the ability to recover stamped serial numbers, invalidating them as a suitable tracking instrument according to the guidelines laid out in the ITI, since they lack true durability and recoverability.

An alternative to serial numbers is Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tracking.  In this method of weapons tracing, a small chip implanted in the body of the weapon emits a specific radio frequency which can be linked to all records concerning the weapon in question, including date of manufacture, previous owners, sale dates, and other relevant information.  This quick access to in depth information would be of great use to forensic investigators attempting to learn more about the history of illegally obtained weapons.  It can also be used to ensure physical security for armories and other weapon storage facilities.  Such a system was implemented by the United States Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security in 2010, which allows both weapons and personnel to be automatically recorded when moving in and out of an armory, as well as restrict unauthorized access to and removal of weapons.  This system could certainly meet concerns posed in the BMS concerning physical security of weapons stockpiles.  However, an RFID chip based system does not meet the ITI’s guideline regarding any markings being conspicuous with the use of specialized tools, since tracing the chips will require the use of detectors scanning for the required frequencies.

Additionally, there are two issues that arise which may compromise an RFID based system of tracing.  The first is the potential for the RFID chip to be removed.  Depending on its location within the weapon, it could be possible for criminals and terrorists to remove these chips while maintaining the functionality of the weapon, therefore preventing the retrieval of any information regarding the weapon.  This possibility threatens both the durability and recoverability requirements put forward by the ITI.  Another threat to an RFID based system is the possibility of cloning an RFID chip.  By following online instructional videos or using open source products already available, it is possible to detect and copy the frequency being emitted by different RFID chips.  This technology could then be used to change the frequency of an illegally diverted weapon to match the RFID signature of a legal weapon, thereby making proper identification and forensic analysis incredibly difficult.  These possible issues severely limit the ability of RFID chip based systems to meet the ITI’s desire for both durability and recoverability.

A third and slightly less orthodox method of weapons tracing can be derived from analyzing the radiation given off during the decay of radioactive isotopes.  As different isotopes decay, they emit gamma rays of a very specific type.  This radiation can then be detected using fairly simple equipment, analyzed, and paired with its source isotope.  In a global weapons tracing system, each nation that produces arms would be assigned a specific isotope, which has its own specific radiation signature.  All weapons produced would be inculcated with trace amounts of the radioactive isotope assigned to the country in which they are being produced. While detectable, the radiation would likely not have any observable effects on humans, given the limited amount or radiation actually being emitted.  The distinct radiation signatures would allow forensic analysts to determine at a minimum the country of origin of the weapon. While this does not provide nearly as much information on individual weapons as a serial number or RFID based tracing system, it is much less prone to tampering.   Certain isotopes can remain detectable for several thousand years, allowing for the continued tracing of weapons long after their initial manufacture and sale.  Additionally, there is no readily available way to distort or remove this radiation signature, which fulfills the ITI’s desire for durability and removes any real need for a recovery mechanism.  This method of tracing could also be applied to the tracing of ammunition.  The lack of reference to the future tracing and control of ammunition in the outcome document of the BMS was a major concern for many of the countries in attendance.  Ammunition is also not covered in the ITI.  However, by adding these trace amounts of radioactive material to the ammunition, it would be possible to determine country of origin, which could be valuable in any future attempts to root out and stop weapons traffickers.

However, using radiation signatures has its own drawbacks.  Firstly, it cannot provide as much detailed information as a serial number or RFID based tracing system.  The only definitive information that can be drawn from the radiation signature would be the country of manufacture, which, while useful, cannot provide an accurate history of the weapon.  Additionally, a radiation based system does not meet the ITI’s requirement that the system be conspicuous without technical aids or tools.  There could also be an issue with the public perception of irradiating weapons and ammunition, due to the negative stigma associated with the term “radioactive”.  Although there is very little chance of any effects from such a tracing system, it may require a degree of public education in order to pass legislation in various countries in order to globally implement such a system.

In sum, no one system that has been discussed in this article completely fulfills the requirements established by the ITI.  Imprinted serial numbers, while easily visible and individualized, can be easily removed with the correct equipment. RFID based systems can provide additional security capabilities in weapons storage and quick access to record, but RFID chips can also be hacked or duplicated in order to prevent proper identification.  Lastly, radiation signatures do not provide nearly as much information as the other tracing systems, but they are much more resistant to tampering by weapons traffickers.  Radiation signatures also have the potential to allow for the tracing of ammunition.  It is likely that some combination of these different systems could be used to create a comprehensive tracing instrument which would be of great value in the fight to eliminate the global illicit weapons trade.

Cadet Keith Miller, West Point


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