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


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.