Except for a smattering of neo-Social Darwinists, religious nuts and arms merchants, everyone wants world peace, right? In a truly peaceful world, nations would not just stop fighting wars; they would cut back their armies and arsenals to levels sufficient for self-defense and internal policing.

The most common objection to disarmament is a variation on the old gun-lovers' slogan: If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns. In other words, if responsible nations radically reduce their militaries, how can they defend themselves against violent rogue states or groups?

This problem has become more pressing lately because of the emergence of violent apocalyptic cults, from al Qaeda to the Hutaree, the crazy Christian militia recently busted in Michigan. Even an individual with sufficient technical know-how and resources can wreak havoc. Remember the Unabomber? Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh? Traditional military deterrence—you hurt us and we'll hurt you worse—provides no defense against people who have no permanent base and will die for their cause. So what to do?

We need a global, grassroots intelligence network to identify bad guys, ideally before they do harm. In 2005 the U.S. intelligence services created Intellipedia, a Web site where spies from the FBI, CIA, NSA and other agencies can swap information and ideas related to national security; the goal was to break down barriers between agencies that prevented them from intercepting the perpetrators of  9/11. Only people with security clearances can access the site, which contains classified information.*

I envision a truly open, unclassified, grassroots Intellipedia, which will publish information on threats to humanity, whether criminal gangs or corporations, religious militias or governments. The site will post reports from any sources, including nongovernmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch, international ones such as the U.N., the media, governments, corporations and individuals. Reports may include satellite and cell-phone images, data from radiation and chemical sensors, transcripts of conversations, records of purchases of potential weapons components and any other relevant evidence.

Professional and amateur analysts—like those who maintain the quality of information on Wikipedia—will assess threats and rate them according to their seriousness. Is a Christian sect in Montana hoping to hasten the End Time by cooking up anthrax spores? Are retired Pakistani officers plotting to sell a nuclear bomb? Is a Nigerian oil company violently driving a tribal people off their land? Depending on the scope of the threat, local, national or international police and courts will investigate, arrest and try suspects.

The best thing about grassroots spying is that it's already happening! Chris DiBona, Google's Open Source Programs manager, recently declared that "the advent of rapidly updating, citizenry-available, high-resolution imagery will remove the protection of the veil of ignorance and secrecy from the powerful and exploitative among us." The American Association for the Advancement of Science's Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project has published commercial satellite images that expose possible war crimes in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Darfur.

Wikileaks, which I mentioned in my last post, publishes material that the powerful don't want us to see, like video of American soldiers gunning down a Reuters reporter in Iraq. Another promising program is Ushahidi, created in 2008 by Kenyan "citizen journalists" reporting on human-rights abuses in that country. Ushahidi (the word means "testimony" in Swahili) allows anyone with a computer, cell phone or palmtop computer to "bring awareness of crisis situations" to the world by posting text, photographs, video and GPA locations to Web-based maps. The more organizations like this we have, the better.

Ubiquitous, omni-directional surveillance may remind some of George Orwell's Oceania or Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, dystopias in which central authorities keep citizens under constant scrutiny. But the whole point of grassroots spying is to reduce our reliance on traditional, Big Brother-ish agencies like the CIA and KGB, whose secrecy enables abuses of power.

Radical transparency—stemming from inevitable advances in sensing and information technologies—will allow radical disarmament. Privacy—and the right of civilians to bear arms—is a small price to pay for peace, especially since we're headed toward radical transparency anyway.

*Erratum (5/4/10): An earlier draft of this post stated incorrectly that Intellipedia is an example of "open-source intelligence." As pointed out by commenter "Researcher," open-source intelligence refers to data gathered from unclassified, publicly available sources.


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

 Image: iStockphoto/JoeLena

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