You know you’ve done it. You’re breezing through Twitter, and some outrageous post pisses you off. You retweet it with a snarky comment, probably signing off with a SMH or FFS. You’re still riled, so you repost it to Facebook. People start commenting, tempers flare. Friends are texting you. Meanwhile, you’re hopping off the bus and headed to a restaurant, checking in your location on Facebook, hardly thinking about the myriad crumbs you’ve left in your wake, info bits awash in the net’s digital ocean. “Digital exhaust” is what Prof. Ron Diebert calls it, the ephemera of our constant internet output waiting to be hoovered up and fed into patterns that reveal more than you could possibly imagine. It’s bad enough here, where we mostly fret about corporations assembling minutely accurate portraits of our likes and dislikes to sell us more stuff. In other places, the governments actively use Facebook and other internet media to mislead and pinpoint activists and critics, rounding them up and arresting them. In some countries, posting the wrong thing can get you killed.
I got the chance to catch Nicholas de Pencier’s documentary Black Code as part of TIFF’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival, where he and Prof. Diebert engaged in a Q&A after the screening. The doc has been playing the festival circuit, and it’s well worth checking out, if you want to stress out about how piss-poor your digital security practices probably are. The film was released in 2016, and speaking about its concerns in a contemporary context, it was clear both men recognized how the intervening year has only made their film even more painfully relevant.
Black Code takes up the subjects of Prof. Diebert’s book of the same name, the internet, social media, hacktivism and its pitfalls. Diebert is the Director of The Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, part of the University of Toronto. One of the first sections of the documentary reveals how The Citizen Lab uncovered the widespread cyber spying scandal GhostNet in 2009. From an investigation of a hack into the Dalai Lama’s laptop, it emerged that a Chinese group had infiltrated the networks of government officials in over a hundred different countries. The hacks were largely done through social engineering, with email phishing to get people to unwittingly submit their passwords to the hackers. From there the film roves about the globe, taking up personalized stories in Tibet, Rio de Janeiro during the World Cup, Ethiopia and everyone’s favourite whipping nation du jour, Syria. In each place, it’s revealed how powerful social media has been in rallying opposition to government oppression, and how it’s equally been exploited by governments to crack down on dissidents.
As Diebert observes, we are living in a self-surveillance society. People willingly give information away in order to use these platforms for their entertainment and edification. Most people are barely aware of how they reveal themselves in their posts. Even for those that are, the assumption is that the constitutional freedoms in Western society protect us from abuses of our privacy. The reality is that we’ve entered uncharted territory with the wealth of information that we give away and what can be constructed from it. In the film, activists are repeatedly hacked, interrogated and tortured for posts they might’ve thought to be relatively private, or their locations are tracked by security forces. A free speech advocate in Pakistan, Sabeen Mahmud, is eventually murdered after an unceasing hate-campaign directed against her on Twitter.
As grim as these instances are, social media can provide powerful protections too, however infrequently. The sheer ubiquity of cameras and live-streams during violent flash-points has created a kind of social insurance. Events are documented in a way that captures their real unfolding, such that state imposed narratives can be shown to be untrue. During the FIFA riots in Rio, protestor Bruno Fereira (above, post-tasing) was arrested, accused of hurling Molotov cocktails at police. The media collective Mídia NINJA appealed for footage, and soon people had combed through YouTube and Facebook and Twitter live-streams to determine that Fereira was innocent, clearly seen protesting at the front lines when the Molotovs were thrown. Even more egregious, footage capturing the guy who actually tossed the first flaming bottle revealed that he was an undercover police agent inciting violence. After throwing the Molotov, video clips show him and his accomplice running away, stripping off their identifying t-shirts, and then pulling out badges when accosted by uniformed police. Fereira was released. Nothing happened to the cops.
In their conversation, de Pencier and Diebert noted that here these issues feel more abstract, but rights can erode dramatically. Just look at what’s happening with immigration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, where people are being held indefinitely, kept from lawyers and family contacts, forced to reveal mobile and social passwords and sign documents under duress. Or the changes to the Federal Communications Commission’s internet privacy rules, allowing ISPs to sell any American’s internet usage data. Moreover, digital privacy is an amorphous concept, that people quickly often fold into issues of national security. Until digital privacy is taken much more seriously as an inherent right, it will be an almost impossible battle for individuals against state and nefarious actors. Unless you’re spending a fair amount of effort and time to keep up with the technology, you will always be outpaced by the resources of tech savvy malefactors. Even here in Canada, the company Netsweeper (based in Guelph, Ontario) is exporting technology to Middle Eastern governments that enables them to adopt the latest cyber-spying techniques on their own people. Law enforcement agencies use false cell towers to capture all your mobile information. Dystopian in the extreme, people need to push back against these policies and uses. It’s a curious thought, but Diebert emphasizes that privacy is essential to a functioning democracy. Your anonymous vote is tallied to express the collective will of the people. That evening, his final words were pretty far from inspiring, but underscored the urgency of the issue. “Much like the environmental crisis,” Diebert said, “[privacy] needs to be repaired for liberal democracies or we’ll be extinguished.” And with that, they suggested we all go for a drink.
So fire up your VPN, and bartender, keep ’em coming. We’re gonna need ’em as we enter the digital Dark Ages.