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Watch power: Israeli raid on Turkish boat and BP oil spill show upside of ubiquitous surveillance

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In a previous post, "Grassroots spying will make world peace possible," I argued that the spread of technologies that allow us to spy on each other might also make us safer. New York Press smacked me for having "elevated the idea of no-privacy to jaw-dropping levels." The writer, Matt Harvey, quotes some pro-privacy guy wondering whether my "pro-intelligence rhetoric" reflects my "clandestine corporate or intelligence connections."

Well, I do own a little Apple stock; I would have owned more but I sold most of it in February after my kids showed me an Internet video of Hitler ranting about the soon-to-be-released iPad ; naturally the stock subsequently soared. Also, I once consulted for the National Counterterrorism Center , an episode that I’ll describe if someone asks nicely. But I promise that no insidious motives—unless yearning for peace counts as insidious—lurk beneath my hopes for omnidirectional spying.

In fact, two crises dominating headlines lately have bolstered my belief in the positive potential of ubiquitous surveillance. One is the fatal May 31 seizure by Israeli commandos of the Mavi Marmara , a Turkish boat attempting to break Israel’s blockade of shipments to Palestinians in Gaza.   The commandos killed nine activists and injured many others. Both the Israelis and the activists video-recorded the encounter; so did reporters from Aljazeera and other media on the Mavi Marmara.

A dispatch from an Aljazeera reporter accused the Israelis of instigating the violence and using excessive force. However, an Israeli video shows activists on the Mavi Marmara beating commandos with rods and chairs, supporting Israel’s claim that its soldiers fired in self-defense. In other words, both sides seem to deserve some blame for the tragedy. My hope—and belief—is that the spread of surveillance equipment will inhibit such violence in the future, not just in the Middle East but around the world. I realize that some bad guys, like al Qaeda militants, shamelessly deploy videos to boast of their brutality. Why else record and release, for example, the beheading of the journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002? But most people fighting for a political cause want to persuade others of their righteousness and don’t want to be perceived as aggressors.

Surveillance technologies are also helping to document the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. A group called SkyTruth, which publishes images from satellites and aircraft to "show people the impacts of our activities on the planet" (as its Web site puts it), helped establish that early estimates of the rate of the oil leakage were far too low. In his invaluable blog Dot Earth, my old friend Andy Revkin notes how other groups are creating detailed maps of the spill’s effects on the sea and coastal regions.

One group mentioned by Revkin, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, is employing "crowd-sourcing" software from the Ushahidi Web site, which I mentioned in my previous post on surveillance. Swahili for "testimony," Ushahidi was created in 2008 to help Kenyan "citizen journalists" report on human rights abuses. Ushahidi software, which allows people to post pictures, video and text, along with GPS locations, has already raised awareness of many humanitarian crises, notably the earthquake that devastated Haiti in January.

Harvey of New York Press wrote that "intelligence is only good if you have the power to use it." Surveillance technologies can certainly help the powerful, just as they helped Israel defend its behavior on the Mavi Marmara. But the primary value of grassroots intelligence is to empower the weak as well as expose and deter wrongdoing by the powerful, whether crimes against humanity or against nature. To repeat the kicker of my previous post, slightly modified: Privacy is a small price to pay for peace and justice, especially since we’re headed toward radical transparency anyway.

Photo by Quevaal from Wiki Commons

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Horgan, a former Scientific American staff writer, directs the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology. (Photo courtesy of Skye Horgan.)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. hankroberts 6:03 pm 06/8/2010

    http://www.davidbrin.com/transparent.htm

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  2. 2. Dr. Paradox 6:06 pm 06/8/2010

    I’ll ask nicely… Will you please tell us about your experience with the National Counterterrorism Center?

    Link to this
  3. 3. Iahmad 2:33 am 06/9/2010

    Israel is more brutal and radical terrorist than Al-Qaeda; period

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  4. 4. MCMalkemus 4:54 am 06/9/2010

    John, it’s a nice hope, which I share, but has it helped to reduce police violence against citizenry? I’m not sure. Police must be aware that someone will likely film them, yet we keep seeing uncalled for beatings. Logically, it should help over time. We’ll see.

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  5. 5. akmangalick 4:55 am 06/9/2010

    I would argue that any activity not undertaken in one’s abode is non-private and therefore subject to observation and documentation by anyone in the presence of that activity. A claim to privacy in such situations is, I believe, equivalent to the restriction of journalism. Therefore, it seems absurdly hypocritical that a member of the press would take such issue with your statements.

    Perhaps the use of the word "spying", with its sinister connotations, is ill-advised. I wouldn’t consider that someone recording video with one’s mobile phone is spying in the traditional sense of that word; "observing" and "documenting" would be more appropriate terms.

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  6. 6. Scoffer 5:44 am 06/9/2010

    Amazing. A heavily edited Israeli video is taken as evidence that "both sides deserve some blame". I would have thought that unarmed people on a civilian ship in international waters are entitled to defend themselves against heavily armed attackers. Isn’t that what the law says? Ooops. Forgot.

    International law does not apply to Israelis. Silly me.

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  7. 7. Tom O H 7:02 am 06/9/2010

    Once again Scientific American is clearly showing its pro-Israeli bias!!! The Israeli commandos boarded a ship they had no right to board IN INTERNATIONAL WATERS! In fact under international maritime law boarding the ship of another sovereign nation is an act of war!
    Then of course there is also the issue of reasonable force, "rods and chairs" against machineguns? Gimme a break. The commandos murdered nine people on that ship. Another thing; did the Israelis even identify themselves before they boarded?
    I ve mentioned before that there has been plenty of articles about radical Islam, CIA torture and virtual terrorism. Not a jot about Israel testing chemical and biological weapons on Palestinian civilians, or their illegal occupation or their flagrant disregard for human rights and international law. I ve never seen anything in the 5 years I ve been subscribing to this magazine.
    I mean come on guys a scientific publication is supposed to be unbiased and show both sides of an argument, right?
    I could be very cynical and say the reason for the bias is the strong position Israelis/Jewish Americans hold in the scientific and academic worlds. Politics and research dollars.
    If anyone has a reasonable counter-argument I d love to hear it, because to be honest I d love to be proven wrong, I really would.

    Tom, Dublin

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  8. 8. PrabirBasu 7:15 am 06/9/2010

    When Orwell wrote 1984, he had no way of knowing that a group of people out there would take it on themselelves to actively seek out opportunities to kill and maime innocent people in public places. Big Brother is watching had sinister connototations back then. In the present context, perhaps Big Brother watching will be a deterent to these would-be killers.

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  9. 9. Highlite 7:56 am 06/9/2010

    Well, here I am, hat in hand, asking nicely; please share your comments and story about working for the National Counterterrorism Center. We would love to hear about that.

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  10. 10. Emfuser 10:07 am 06/9/2010

    Am I the only one with my hand slapping my forehead because I realized as soon as I saw mention of Israel, Palestinians, etc that the comments would be quickly dominated by arguments about them instead of the content of the whole article and what the author is trying to convey?

    The article is about how the ease of recording an event and spreading it with the help of the internet has implications for the behaviors of people, organizations, and even nations. The article is NOT about middle-eastern conflict, Israel, Palestinians, blockades, or anything else. That was just used as an example of ONE instance.

    You stupid zealots and your pet topic ruin the commentary section of every article that ever mentions that conflict, whether it’s actually about the conflict or not.

    Link to this
  11. 11. Emfuser 10:08 am 06/9/2010

    Am I the only one with my hand slapping my forehead because I realized as soon as I saw mention of Israel, Palestinians, etc that the comments would be quickly dominated by arguments about them instead of the content of the whole article and what the author is trying to convey?

    The article is about how the ease of recording an event and spreading it with the help of the internet has implications for the behaviors of people, organizations, and even nations. The article is NOT about middle-eastern conflict, Israel, Palestinians, blockades, or anything else. That was just used as an example of ONE instance.

    You stupid zealots and your pet topic ruin the commentary section of every article that ever mentions that conflict, whether it’s actually about the conflict or not.

    Link to this
  12. 12. Tom O H 10:16 am 06/9/2010

    "Stupid zealots"? Get a grip of yourself buddy, and for your information I m wasn’t talking about the middle eastern conflict per se, I was commenting on the bias present in Scientific American.

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  13. 13. Tom O H 10:21 am 06/9/2010

    And another thing, its pretty effing topical at the minute so why wouldn’t people talk about it? Scientific American has made a blatantly pro-Israeli statement in this article. THATS NOT THEIR JOB!!! Scientific writing is supposed to be unbiased. Thats the point I m making!

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  14. 14. akmangalick 11:40 am 06/9/2010

    Someone needs to record video of lili spamming with her retail ads.

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  15. 15. John_Toradze 12:22 pm 06/9/2010

    The boats came into the exclusion zone of an internationally recognized blockade. They were warned. The claim of international waters is a lie.

    Only 1 of 5 ships had an incident. The others went peacefully to Israel. When the supplies were taken to the border, Hamas would not let them through. It is Hamas that is blockading its own people.

    On the one ship where there was violence, the boarding soldiers were attacked by martyr seeking radicals. Israelis were hit with iron bars, shot at, etcetera. There is no blame on Israel. All the blame goes to the muslim brotherhood.

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  16. 16. Tom O H 12:59 pm 06/9/2010

    Get your facts right buddy it was in INTERNATIONAL WATERS and the blockade is illegal. Anyway I m not here to argue the facts I was only stating that this is a biased publication. But since you asked:
    If you broke into someone’s house armed with a gun and they came at you with a chair or a stick and you shot them dead is that reasonable self-defence? No its not because you shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

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  17. 17. Steve Skeete 7:13 pm 06/9/2010

    Someone says that "The Israeli commandos boarded a ship they had no right to board IN INTERNATIONAL WATERS! In fact under international maritime law boarding the ship of another sovereign nation is an act of war"!

    Well that is exactly what a ship load of "peace activists" gave the IDF as soon as they landed on the ship.

    After watching the Israeli video version of the boarding I was simply amazed at how well these "peace activists" wielded their clubs and metal bars. They were so adept in their use of these crude weapons, that the IDF seemed to have had no choice but to use their own more advanced ones.

    Interestingly enough, we have not yet seen the video of the casualties on the IDF side. But then that does not matter. When you board a ship that you have no right to board on the high seas, then as the aggressor you must take whatever the peaceful people dish out.

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  18. 18. ormondotvos 8:16 pm 06/9/2010

    The significant comment is that the Israeli video was heavily edited and the timestamps removed, although I’m sure they could have not only time-stamped but provided GPS data. Too bad the piracy took place in the dark. I’m sure that improved the situation for the commandos, with their US-supplied night vision goggles (a violation of US law concerning usage of such technology). What isn’t mentioned is the state of mind of the people on the Mavi Marmara, who couldn’t have been more aware of the violent nature of Israeli soldiers, since that was what they were there to protest. Israel is a renegade state operating under the threadbare cover of "existential threat."

    A very close neighbor was on the Mavi. She had everything (about $5000 worth) stolen by the Israelis except her passport, and was dumped at the airport, but not Officially Deported, to save Israel buying her ticket to Turkey. Shades of piles of rings and gold teeth in concentration camps.

    We seem to be seeing a suicidal culture in its death throes.

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  19. 19. hastigo 12:18 pm 06/10/2010

    Interesting that your "Both the Israelis and the activists video-recorded the encounter; .." so evidently fails to include that the Israelis commandeered all of the activist footage.
    Which is still, I understand, very largely sequestered, unseen.
    [It gets a little like the Goldstone report which found that Hamas was 50% responsible for an unwarranted, absolutely unnecessary & brutal invasion of their own home(s). A report which the Israelis had the effrontery to protest. Amazing.]
    Obvious B.S., my friend and you’re an apologist.
    Agree with Tom.

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  20. 20. Matt Harvey 12:40 pm 06/10/2010

    @Prabir Basu

    Clearly, you’ve never read 1984, or anything else by Orwell for that matter.

    Link to this

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