Big Brother is browsing
Nicholas de Pencier on the menace of modern surveillance
Donald Trump may have been fibbing when he accused his predecessor of wiretapping, but as Nicholas de Pencier outlines in his new documentary, surveillance is a growing threat to civil rights. The film, Black Code, is based on the book Black Code: Surveillance, Privacy, and the Dark Side of the Internet by Ron Deibert, the head of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which tracks governments and corporations that are using high-tech tools to keep tabs on others. (As Deibert says: "It's big data meets Big Brother.") We spoke with de Pencier at his office in Toronto.
I'm going to record this interview with my phone, just so everything you say goes straight to Communications Security Establishment Canada.
[He cracks a very small smile, says nothing.]
That's not a joke to you any more, I guess?
Ron [Deibert]'s auto-reply – he tweaks it all the time – is a signature about who's reading his e-mail; he adjusts it to whatever shiny new story about surveillance is in the news this week.
And there are so many.
There are. It was one of my biggest challenges on the film.
When I saw the U.S. Congress vote recently to let Internet service providers sell their customers' browsing history, I thought: Hey, that'll make a good news peg for your film. Did you feel that?
Someone tweeted: Every U.S. elected official should disclose all of their surfing histories. We'll see who likes that law, then.
But people, at least here in North America, don't seem to be rioting in the streets. Is it that we don't know about the issues that your film – and others such as the Edward Snowden doc, Citizenfour – discuss? Or is it that they don't care because these devices in our pockets are just too damned fun?
I started this film because reading Ron Deibert's book was hugely revelatory. I was amazed at how much I didn't know. And then Snowden dropped, and all of a sudden everyone was talking about this. Thank God it happened early enough that I wasn't trying to compete against that incredible narrative. But it was early enough that I could then try to position the film as being a post-Snowden film, and [asking] what does the world look like?
We often think about surveillance or snooping being conducted by governments – from repressive regimes to, frankly, Canada – but corporations are also very active. The film suggests that, in their pursuit of power through these tools, there's very little difference between business and governments.
My worry is: With these very structures, these unprecedented possibilities of surveillance and control of all of our communications and activities – does this new architecture and infrastructure itself bend somehow towards our lesser angels, our totalitarian instincts? If you're in power in a complicated world, can we really trust the corporate executives or the elected officials to resist the temptation to access that information?
Are you more paranoid now? When I walked into this building, I noticed there were no cameras. Mind you, it's a pretty old building.
This building is sketchy, yes. In doing this film, I went from almost zero, in terms of my own personal Internet hygiene and security, to feeling a bit like James Bond, after the Citizen Lab had got me beefed up with encrypted chat and e-mail. Just various ways of protecting all of your ones and zeros. And your communications. And then encrypting sensitive media that I was collecting. If someone's going to entrust you with an interview that could incriminate them, and you're going to have your laptop crossing a border, and the authorities are going to look at that, then you've breached a first principle.
Right. You interviewed a number of people who have suffered under the surveillance state and are still being hunted, such as exiled Tibetan monks whose phones were hacked.
Yeah. Having said that, I find all of those things impractical in my always-playing-catch-up, fast-paced, 200-e-mail-a-day life. I thought there would be a lot more how-to, when I was at the beginning of the film. There are fascinating things around passwords, around blockchain, around all these kind of algorithms that can be built in – and there just wasn't room [to include them in the film]. But these things just aren't mass-market yet. It's not easy enough to make some kind of a wall around your everyday communications.
Are you telling me Chrome's 'Incognito' tab doesn't protect me from spying by the Five Eyes countries?
I'm the wrong person to ask.
Yeah, pretty sure it doesn't.
But I think it becomes almost like the big unanswerable philosophical questions of the universe. I think we'll never really know whether that thing that we trust as being fully encrypted – who really did make that? I mean, the Tor browser – which is a fascinating concept for anonymity online, and has gotten a lot of buzz recently – it was invented by the U.S. military, right? And so, who knows, really? And that kind of chill, and paranoia – if you let it – I think can be crippling.
Did you feel chilled?
I have the luxury of living in the wonderful country of Canada. It's a place where so many people would love the relative rights and freedoms that we enjoy here. I don't let myself get paranoid because I really don't have to. At the same time, on principle I let myself get paranoid enough to make this film and to become a bit of an activist on these things where I'm able to. Again, that's just on principle. I haven't yet been on the wrong side of these things. [Knocks on his desk. It's wood.]
This interview has been condensed, edited, and possibly read prior to publication by the authorities.