Who will watch the watchers? Well, all of us.
That’s the message to be decrypted – albeit easily enough – from Black Code, a film by documentary maker Nicholas de Pencier based on the book of the same title by Ron Deibert, director of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab. Sponsored by enterprise software firm SAP for its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the documentary is an examination not of the dystopian future we might be headed towards, but the dystopian present that many people in the world are facing every day as entrenched governments tap the power of the Internet for the purposes of surveillance.
After its success sponsoring Rick and Sandy Smolan’s The Human Face of Big Data last year, SAP was keen on curating a series of films at TIFF that examined how digital transformation affects how we live, work, and play, says David Jonker, senior director of product marketing at SAP. With Black Code, we see a more critical approach to the concept, and a film that shows digital technology being used in many ways that people don’t realize.
“If we want to build a society and an economy that harnesses digital transformation to make the world a better place, we have to be very deliberate about how that gets done,” he says. “Film does a good job of building that story of what it could look like.”
Where big data meets Big Brother
As Ron Deibert, author of Black Code and the first person we meet as the film begins, explains to us, Black Code is about “where big data meets Big Brother.” With Deibert acting as guide, and de Pencier silently crafting the story unseen and unheard behind the camera, we travel the world and hear about some of the most egregious cases of Internet surveillance by government powers, often leading to human rights abuses or an overall choking of civil society.
The first half of the film documents such cases in Tibet, where Citizen Lab investigated malware that turned out to be GhostNet, an elaborate surveillance operation probably operated largely by the Chinese government. We feel the weight of the oppression when we hear about the Tibetans who have self-immolated in protest of the regime, and the subsequent censorship of those stories from the Internet. The grim reality of governmental power abuses continue as we visit Syria and hear about a student who is asked to voluntarily come in for questioning by police, then is confronted with posts to his Facebook page and tortured as a suspected terrorist.
In Ethiopia and the UK, we learn the story of Tadesse Kersmo, a member of an outlawed opposition group and in exile from his home country. Yet he is still targeted by the Ethiopian government by FinFisher, a malware program marketed to governments interested in surveillance. Debeirt tells us that the “commercialization of cybercrime” is a huge industry, with malware that would typically be considered illegal openly marketed at trade shows for police, military, and intelligence agencies.
Tools of oppression, tools of truth
Much of the latter half of the film takes place in Brazil, where a band of impassioned, bearded citizen journalists are so dissatisfied with the coverage provided by state-controlled media that they start their own live broadcasting effort, Midia Ninja. At first their elaborate set up requires pushing around a grocery cart full of IT gear, an impractical vehicle when moving through densely-packed crowds of protesters in the street. Soon enough, they turn to a mobile video live streaming service called TwitCasting. While the video is low quality, the stream is consistent and reliable. Now the broadcasters can head into the fray with just a smartphone in hand.
The efforts of Midia Ninja, along with the photos and videos collected from other citizen smartphones, prove crucial when a protester is arrested and accused of throwing a molotov cocktail at police. Assembling the crowdsourced media into a timeline of where the protester is standing and when the molotov cocktail is thrown, the protester’s innocence is proven well before any court appearances. Later, crowdsourced images and video from the event show the person that did throw the molotov cocktail in question was a member of the police, revealing the agent provocateur tactics at play.
In witnessing this story, we learn the concept of “sous”-veillance, which serves as a counterpoint to the surveillance tactics explored earlier in the film. Taken from a french expression, the phrase implies that a crowd is watching authority figures from underneath. This is where the film offers a light at the end of the tunnel – if we’re to avoid entrenched authorities using digital technologies to invade privacy and control civil society, we must also take advantage of those same tools to hold those authorities accountable.
Before the film started, de Pencier told the crowd that reading Black Code made him realize that digital connectivity has the potential to regress our civilization. Without secrets, there is no liberal democracy or market economy, he said.
When he met with Deibert, he realized the film could serve as a cautionary tale of what our future could look like if we’re not mindful.
As SAP’s Jonker puts it, we’re at a turning point.
“There are points in our society where a lot of change happens and you have that opportunity to try and shape it,” he says. “I think we’re at that place with digital transformation, we’re in the early stages.”
So when you find the chance to watch this documentary, remember it’s not just a film, but a call to action.