I spent February on a book tour for my YA novel Homeland, which concerns a group of American teenagers enmeshed in the surveillance/security apparatus. The kids are chased by private military contractors and anonymous hackers who infiltrate the teens’ computers, turning them into surveillance tools whose cameras, mikes, keyboards and hard drives are silently spying on them. On the first stop of the tour, in Seattle, I spoke to the audience about the real-world inspiration for all this: the companies, governments, crooks and schools that compromise our electronic infrastructure and our privacy in unimaginably invasive ways.
Every part of our lives is touched by the Internet, and we interface with that network through our devices. I gave examples of network connections, laptops, phones and even implanted defibrillators being co-opted. When our devices betray us, we are compromised in every conceivable way.
I could have cited the example of a case from last year, when the U.S. Federal Trade Commission settled with seven computer rental companies and a software maker named DesignerWare. These companies had installed on their rentals DesignerWare software that covertly captured video of their customers having sex, video of their children, audio of their conversations, banking passwords, financial details, privileged discussions with lawyers and confidential health information. The FTC sternly told the companies that in future, they must refrain from this activity, unless they give notice of it in their terms and conditions.
When I was done addressing the crowd, a woman put up her hand and said, “You’ve scared the heck out of me. How on Earth can I possibly make all the electronics in my life secure?”
I said, basically, you can’t. I can’t. Only we as a society can. If I’d just given you a talk on the risks of waterborne parasites, you wouldn’t be asking how you could personally run an effective water filtration and sewage system. You’d be asking how we can get our governments and regulators to treat potable water with the gravitas becoming to something that is life or death for all of us.
Ronald Deibert’s new book, Black Code, is a gripping and absolutely terrifying blow-by-blow account of the way that companies, governments, cops and crooks have entered into an accidental conspiracy to poison our collective digital water supply in ways small and large, treating the Internet as a way to make a quick and dirty buck or as a snoopy spy’s best friend. The book is so thoroughly disheartening for its first 14 chapters that I found myself growing impatient with it, worrying that it was a mere counsel of despair.
But the final chapter of Black Code is an incandescent call to arms demanding that states and their agents cease their depraved indifference to the unintended consequences of their online war games and join with civil society groups that work to make the networked society into a freer, better place than the world it has overwritten.
Deibert is the founder and director of The Citizen Lab, a unique institution at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. It is one part X-Files hacker clubhouse, one part computer science lab and one part international relations observatory. The Citizen Lab’s researchers have scored a string of international coups: Uncovering GhostNet, the group of Chinese hackers taking over sensitive diplomatic computers around the world and eavesdropping on the private lives of governments; cracking Koobface, a group of Russian petty crooks who extorted millions from random people on the Internet, a few hundred dollars at a time; exposing another Chinese attack directed at the Tibetan government in exile and the Dalai Lama. Each of these exploits is beautifully recounted in Black Code and used to frame a larger, vivid narrative of a network that is global, vital and terribly fragile.
Yes, fragile. The value of the Internet to us as a species is incalculable, but there are plenty of parties for whom the Internet’s value increases when it is selectively broken.
Black Code shows how governments – from “free” Western/liberal states such as Canada to states such as Myanmar, China and Iran – have hit upon the Internet as a system for ubiquitous surveillance and social control, and documents how the ability to dictate unaccountable censorship is too much temptation to be borne. As Google’s annual “Transparency Report” of government censorship requests reveals, apparatchiks all over the world issue take-down demands to online services to remove embarrassing revelations about their offspring and cronies, as well as covering up graver sins, making use of censorship systems established in the name of fighting child porn, jihadism and copyright infringement.