Head Toward the Light

One of the most profound effects of software burrowing its way into our lives is how it is rendering the world transparent. Information flows with stunning speed everywhere. We can know almost everything, just as almost everything can be known about us. How that information gets used, and by whom – whether it’s governments, corporations, or black hat hackers – is the question that we are all grappling with in a post-Snowden world.

Investigating human rights violations in regions that are effectively closed off physically, is how Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, is leveraging the accelerating information flow.

With a very small team, Bouckaert is able to combine reports on the ground with information pulled from YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Google Earth and other sources to determine that it was missiles launched from a government base and not terrorist car bombs that destroyed parts of a Syrian university; or that chemical weapons were indeed unleashed on a neighborhood. The software tools we casually use, all those apps in our smartphones, are being deployed in ways never anticipated when the first lines of code were written.

“If this chemical attack had taken place 10 years ago, or even five years ago, we still would not know what had happened in Ghouta (Syria),” Bouckaert says. “We would still be in the dark.”

Welcome to the light. It’s only going to get brighter.

To go deeper into the methodologies behind what Bouckaert and his team did in Syria, and how they reached their conclusions regarding chemical weapons use read this report. Be warned, there are graphic images and descriptions.