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Cybersurveillance: We Put the Law on Our Side, Part I

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Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace, by Ronald J. Deibert; 2013, McClelland & Stewart

The Citizen Lab's Ron Deibert began his academic career as an arms control specialist, monitoring treaties, counting ICBMs and the like. The mantra back then was "trust but verify." He believes we need an updated version of this discipline for cyberspace:

"Arms control by which I mean constructing politics to restrict or prevent arbitrary misuses of power, while maintaining information freedoms. Checks and balances. The Lab provides a kind of cyber-verification, exposes cheating, etc. But we need more of this kind of activity, with more organizations involved."

Trust and verify aren't exactly on speaking terms. In the "United States of N.S.A.," citizens from Sydney to San Francisco are asked to blindly trust their governments to do the right thing, while governments meanwhile are verifying their citizens' activities. This seems backwards -- it's surely more in keeping with the liberal democratic tradition for governments to place faith in their citizens, who in turn check up on their governments?

But it's hard to verify, let alone trust, a hidden system that appears to be making up the rules as it goes along. Whether it's cybersurveillance of private and foreign citizens or American cruise missile strike policy, there's a sense of arbitrariness, making-this-up-as-we-go-along, folks, that suggests LegalZoom has been retained as in-house counsel not just by the U.S. government but also its allies, with an amended tagline -- "We Put the Law on Our Side."

Deibert's Citizen Lab, based at the University of Toronto, tries to shed light on this increasingly complex shadow world, albeit on a small scale. For more than a decade he and his team of researchers worldwide have often played off of hunches to track government-sponsored censorship, viruses, cyber-espionage rings, corporate co-conspirators, attacks on individuals and NGOs. It includes tracking the activities of the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), the pro-government confederation of hackers that infiltrates opposition groups and hijacks media outlets, including The Huffington Post.

Without resorting to unnecessary hyperbole, Deibert describes the battle for cyberspace as "a constitutional question on a planetary scale." He goes on: "The liberal democratic core have lost sight of what we need to secure in the first place. From expanding the liberal democratic experiment worldwide, we've reverted to a more national security mindset, and an imperial project, frankly."

Despite whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden, Deibert doesn't soon see the scale tipping in favour of more oversight, accountability or transparency.

"The optimistic view is that popular outrage would rein in some of the excesses. Unfortunately, more likely is the pessimistic scenario: other countries will look at the U.S. case as justification for exercising more control over their own communications infrastructure. 'If the US can do it, we can do it.' South Africa, Australia, Japan are already moving in that direction. So it's up in the air at the moment which way it will go."

In my view, cybersurveillance works best in societies whose populations are pre-disposed to it, science-averse followers of religion or rationality-averse followers of ideology, or where Santa Claus is popular. Substitute one deity for another in the following list, and it rings just as true for much of the population. "The NSA knows who's been naughty or nice." "Verizon moves in mysterious ways." "PRISM's making a list, is checking it twice." Proverbs 15:3: "The eyes of Special Source Operations are in every place, keeping watch on the wicked and good."

It's a polytheistic culture of faith, a belief in machines and bureaucrats and corporations whose workings and relationships most don't understand, and don't want to. These same people feel a letdown in The Wizard of Oz where the curtain is pulled back. They would prefer to surrender their own agency to an Agency.

(to be continued in part two)