On Tuesday September 13th, 9:30 pm, the film adaptation of the book Black Code—directed by renowned filmmaker Nicholas de Pencier—will make its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Founded in the spring of 2001, just prior to the incendiary events later that year, the Citizen Lab’s mission was to combine technical interrogation, field research, and social science to lift the lid on the Internet. It remains so to this day. We aim to document and expose the exercise of power hidden from the average Internet user, and we do so basically by using the same practices as state intelligence agencies – by combining technical intelligence and field investigations with open-source information gathering. Our intent is to “watch the watchers” and to deliver our findings to the public, to constantly probe the degree to which cyberspace remains an open and secure commons for all. Situated at the University of Toronto, the Citizen Lab has the protection, resources, and credibility it needs to do what it must do, and from this base we have built international partnerships with researchers and universities around the world. We have eyes in many places and have become a digital early warning system, peering into the depths of cyberspace and scanning the horizon. What we have seen and continue to see is disturbing.
The word black conjures up that which is hidden, obscured from the view of the average Internet user. Never before have we been surrounded by so much technology upon which we depend, and never before have we also known so little about how that technology actually works. I am not talking about programming a vcr, or lifting the hood of your car in the faint hope that you can fix the engine, or trying to brew a cup of coffee from a digitally operated espresso machine. I am talking about an intimate and ongoing understanding of what’s going on beneath the surface of the systems upon which we have become so reliant in order to communicate and remain informed.
The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke argued that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and as cyberspace grows more and more complex the more it becomes for most people a mysterious unknown that just “works,” something we just take for granted. It is not only that we know less and less about the technical systems upon which we depend, the problem is deeper than that. We are actively discouraged, by law and the companies involved, from developing a curiosity about and knowledge of the inner workings of cyberspace.The extraordinary applications that we now use to communicate may feel like tools of liberation, but the devil is in the details, in the lengthy licence agreements that restrict how they can be used. And while exploring that technology is strictly policed, and sometimes carries with it warranty violations, fines, even incarceration, the spread of black-code-by-design is a recipe for the abuse of power and authority, and thus protecting rights and freedoms in cyberspace requires a reversal of that taboo, a spotlighting on that which is hidden beneath the surface.
Black also refers to the criminal forces that are increasingly insinuating themselves into cyberspace, gradually subverting it from the inside out.The Internet’s original designers built a system of interconnection based on trust, and as beautiful as that original conception was, how it might be abused was never predicted, could not be predicted. One of the first Internet applications, email, was almost instantly hijacked by the persistent nuisance of spam. Each subsequent application has followed suit, and with the almost wholesale penetration of the Internet into homes, offices, governments, hospitals, and energy systems, the stakes are much higher, the consequences of those malignant forces much more serious.Those who take advantage of the Internet’s vulnerabilities today are not just juvenile pranksters or frat house brats; they are organized criminal groups, armed militants, and nation states. Add to this mix the demographic shift that is occurring and the picture gets more frightening. Most of the world’s future Internet population will live in fragile and in many cases corrupt states.
And then there are the secretive worlds of national defence and intelligence agencies, as in “black ops,” “black budgets,” going “deep black” – worlds that have now become major players in cyberspace security and governance.The collection of three-letter agencies born alongside World War II (cia, fbi, nsa, kgb, etc.) that became global behemoths during the Cold War may have seemed to be on the edge of extinction in the 1990s, but the combination of “big data” (the massive explosion of digital information in all of its forms), security threats, and the spectre of terrorism has created a power vortex into which these agencies, with their unique information-gathering capabilities, have stepped.
At the very moment when we are surrounded with so much access to information and apparent transparency, we are delegating responsibility for the security and governance of cyberspace to some of the world’s most secretive agencies. And just as we are entrusting so much information to third parties, we are also relaxing legal protections that restrict security agencies from accessing our private data, from investigating us.The title Black Code refers to the growing influence of national security agencies, and the expanding network of contractors and companies with whom they work.
Nick de Pencier’s prior work includes the award-winning documentaries made in collaboration with his wife, Jennifer Baichwal—Manufactured Landscapes and Watermark—and more recently a documentary of the Tragically Hip’s farewell cross-Canada tour in support of the Man, Machine, Poem album.