Dan­gers of dig­i­tal surveil­lance

Regina Leader-Post - - MOVIES - TINA HAS­SAN­NIA

Black Code di­rec­tor Ni­cholas de Pencier is no stranger to Cana­dian doc­u­men­tary, hav­ing served as a cin­e­matog­ra­pher and/or pro­ducer for films like Al Purdy Was Here, Water­mark and The End of Time. He’s also di­rected a hand­ful of made-for-TV doc­u­men­taries.

He’s now ex­pand­ing his ef­forts be­yond the tele­vi­sion screen with Black Code, a doc about the in­creas­ingly com­pli­cated ar­chi­tec­ture of data col­lec­tion and the dis­turb­ing havoc that dig­i­tal surveil­lance has wreaked on hu­man rights. It’s a sub­ject most of us don’t keep up with, and as the film sug­gests, our ig­no­rance is our own peril.

From Ti­bet to Pak­istan to Brazil and be­yond, this frank, no-holds-barred doc­u­men­tary ex­plores the era of Big Data, and be­longs as much to de Pencier as it does to pro­fes­sor Ron­ald Deib­ert, di­rec­tor of Univer­sity of Toronto’s Cit­i­zen Lab.

Black Code is largely based on Deib­ert’s book Black Code: Inside the Bat­tle for Cy­berspace, with his voice fill­ing up the film as if he’s giv­ing a lec­ture. Cit­i­zen Lab is a re­search or­ga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to hack­tivism

— it helped ex­pose GhostNet, an un­der­cover cy­ber surveil­lance project con­ducted by the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment — and it’s con­nected with and as­sisted po­lit­i­cal dis­si­dents from sev­eral coun­tries with au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes.

The sto­ries Black Code tells are pretty scat­tered, and not al­ways com­plete. It does end with one pow­er­ful, con­ve­niently pre-formed nar­ra­tive, how­ever: the case of one Rio de Janeiro pro­tester, who was wrongly ac­cused and im­pris­oned for throw­ing a Molo­tov cock­tail at the riot po­lice.

Live-stream­ing footage, recorded by al­ter­na­tive-me­dia re­porters be­long­ing to a group called the Midia Ninja, drew the at­ten­tion of thou­sands of view­ers who were able to trace ex­actly where the im­pris­oned pro­tester was when the bomb was thrown, lead­ing to his dis­charge.

(The real per­pe­tra­tor turned out to be an un­der­cover cop try­ing to agi­tate the protest.)

But anec­dotes from other ac­tivists in­ter­viewed for the film are less com­plete, and the film’s scat­ter­shot ap­proach in re­veal­ing snip­pets of th­ese nar­ra­tives be­fore mov­ing onto an­other part of the world is an­noy­ing and dis­tract­ing.

There’s the story of Sabeen Mah­mud, a Pak­istani hu­man rights ac­tivist who was killed af­ter dar­ing to air her opin­ions online. Online spa­ces, the film ar­gues, are more per­ilous for at­tract­ing dan­ger­ous at­tack­ers than phys­i­cal spa­ces, as dis­senters’ opin­ions carry a per­ma­nence that words shouted in a phys­i­cal space do not, thereby

at­tract­ing a much more siz­able lynch mob.

We meet ex­iled Ti­betan dis­si­dents try­ing to keep tabs on fel­low ac­tivists still in Ti­bet who set them­selves on fire to defy the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment.

Th­ese are peo­ple who can’t com­mu­ni­cate their ac­tions to com­rades from sheer lack of ac­cess and in­escapable cy­ber surveil­lance.

The sto­ries are alarm­ing, and cer­tainly, peo­ple should know about them. There’s no doubt the grow­ing com­plex­ity of cy­ber surveil­lance of gov­ern­ments and cor­po­ra­tions — and the lack of reg­u­la­tion over what in­for­ma­tion should be mon­i­tored — al­ready af­fects ap­a­thetic, priv­i­leged joe-shmoes — not just ac­tivists in to­tal­i­tar­ian regimes. We just haven’t had to face the mu­sic yet.

But out­side of in­form­ing us about what’s hap­pen­ing and gen­tly ask­ing us to stay aware about th­ese global is­sues, Black Code doesn’t have much else to say. It’s a trait of tele­vi­sual doc­u­men­tary sto­ry­telling, and not one that nec­es­sar­ily de­serves the cin­e­matic treat­ment.


Black Code is largely based on pro­fes­sor Ron­ald Deib­ert’s book Black Code: Inside the Bat­tle for Cy­berspace. The sto­ries told in the movie are some­times scat­tered, and not al­ways com­plete.

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