State Department Says iPhones Can Detect Illegal Weapons Testing

A new Apple iPhone

A new Apple iPhone Kiichiro Sato/AP

The State Department is talking to Apple scientists about new uses for the iPhone.

The State Department wants to use the Internet of Things, the network of connected sensors and devices, for arms control, a senior adviser said during a conference Tuesday.

Brian Nordmann, ‎senior adviser for arms control, verification and compliance at the State Department, told a small audience he's working with researchers at the University of Hawaii, who are examining how the iPhone 5 can be used to detect infrasonic noise, potentially signalling nuclear tests underground. The iPhone 5's accelerometers and microphones are sensitive enough to detect earthquakes and explosions, Nordmann said. 

The University of Hawaii researchers are examining the iPhone 6's ability to pick up vibration signals, which is duller than the iPhone 5's, according to Nordmann. He theorized that the company removed the capability to make the phone cheaper.

Apple's scientists were apparently unaware the phone's equipment could be used for seismic sensors, Nordmann said.

"We're now talking to the scientists [at Apple] to have them thinking broader than what they were thinking," he added.

But approaching large companies with technology hacks can often be futile, he said.

 "If I go to Apple or I go to IBM or I go to Lockheed Martin, they're not going to give me the time of day. . . But if I go to a startup or I go to the guy who's a hobbyist in his garage and tell him the problem, he's going to come up with five solutions of how I can do it by tweaking his [product]."

Nordmann said he's been going to more tech meetups to ask entrepreneurs, "'How can I steal their ideas for my applications, or have them steal my ideas for their applications?'”