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'Weapons of Mass Destruction' discussion lands at SXSW

South by Southwest has gotten so big that the top arms control official in the United States decided to stop by the conference with a message for its techies: We come in peace.

Acting Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller speaking at SXSW 2013.
James Martin/CNET

AUSTIN, Texas -- Once again, Uncle Sam wants you. This time, the U.S. government is after your nerdy, data- and public policy-obsessed brains.

That was the message delivered by Acting Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller to a small but actively curious group of techie and policy wonks at South by Southwest today.

In a session entitled, "Mobilizing Ingenuity to Strengthen Mobile Security," Gottemoeller and CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman discussed the U.S. government's interest in getting the public more involved in disarmament and the detection of weapons of mass destruction.

Gottemoeller's initial presentation addressed current government initiatives, such as the "Innovation in Arms Control contest winners, and policy implementation, including problems reducing nuclear warhead proliferation.

Though the audience for this late-announced panel was small, it was clear from the question and answer session that there was a high level of engagement. Alexander Wong, an employee of the U.S. government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), asked Gottemoeller about her stance toward the public ownership of radiation data.

"Nothing!" she exclaimed. "I think it's good. It's necessary for [public] health reasons."

Other audience members felt they had good ideas to contribute, and took advantage of the rare opportunity to interact directly with such a high-level government representative. Helena Puig Larrauri, an independent consultant specializing in technology and "peace building," brought up issues of privacy, safety, and information dissemination in countries where the mobile networks and Internet are controlled by the government.

CNET's Daniel Terdiman, left, an unidentified aide, and the Acting Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller at SXSW 2013. James Martin/CNET

Among the various intersections of tech and weapons disarmament, Gottemoeller brought up the crowd-sourced developments in Japan following the tsunami and Fukushima disaster that allowed people to use the accelerometers in their smartphones as makeshift Geiger counters.

The rapid public response to disasters and initiatives like the red balloon challenge part of the aforementioned Innovation in Arms Control contest was an important lesson for Gottemoeller, she said.

"I was astonished by how quickly the answers came in," a sign to her that there was a strong public interest in weapons disarmament and public safety.