Some events have impacted American culture with such force that the periods before and after they occur become defined as eras separated by the unprecedented – the Pearl Harbor and 9-11 attacks immediately come to mind as does the assassination of President Kennedy. But a new film about secrecy – and the lack of it – in our digital age might as well ask the question “Where were you when you first heard the name Edward Snowden?”
Director Nicholas de Pencier’s Black Code offers a collection of narratives from around the globe that combine to form a mosaic of spying, hacking, listening, jamming, encrypting, leaking and fighting up and down the battle lines of the information security debate. The movie is based on the book Black Code: Surveillance, Privacy, and the Dark Side of the Internet by Ronald Deibert. The book and Pencier’s film examine how digital technology is transforming the way we think of privacy as individuals and as citizens being targeted by countries and corporations prying and peeking into our lives. Pencier spoke with me about Black Code which was released on DVD and video on demand on February 20 by Music Box Films. We talked about the temptations of technology, the politics of privacy, activist culture, and – of course – Edward Snowden.
“Subjectively, my path to the film was through reading Ron Deibert’s book and being amazed at how much I didn’t know,” says Pencier. “I’m not a tech guy but I am a media guy, but that book was hugely revelatory. And then Snowden happened, and this thing that had been much more hidden, now lots of people were paying attention to it. But now that we know what do, what do we do about it? My answer was to make this documentary.”
Black Code draws a line from the printing press to the telegraph to the telephone to mobile smart phones to the social media and cloud computing many of use interact with daily. A few generations ago telephone callers trusted operators not to listen to the calls they connected. Now we trust third parties with unprecedented amounts of previously private and personal information.
“The false promise of the internet is that it would be this wonderfully democratized space,” says Pencier. “Now in one sense that’s true, but in practice it funnels down to a few concentrated portals that polarize opinions. Wealth and capital are more polarized and so is information, and my Pakistan story tries to talk about that amplification that the internet perpetuates.”
A Pakistani internet activist named Sabeen Mahmud raised awareness about how technology was enabling traditional gender-based violence in Pakistani society before she was flooded with rape and death threats on Twitter and then gunned down outside a restaurant in 2015. Mahmud’s crusade didn’t seem to ruffle feathers when she spoke in public or even on television, but once it hit the internet and generated interest on social media sites the comment threads turned into an angry mob scene. The film doesn’t offer an explanation or a solution for the worst aspects of sites like Facebook and Twitter, but the example reminds us of how toxic our anonymous online interactions can become, and how they can affect – and end – our real, actual lives.
Of course social media can also be a place where communities of resistance connect to communicate and organize. The best place to track the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 wasn’t Fox News or CNN, it was Twitter.
“There’s no question that the internet is great for finding communities and organizing around common causes,” says Pencier. “At the same time, internet activism in and of itself is kind of superficial and ripe for being derailed and distorted. Going out and marching and activating these things in physical spaces is ultimately necessary. The guys in Brazil – I kind of fell in love with them.”
Rio de Janeiro is home to Midia NINJA – Narrative Independent Journalism Action. Armed with phone cameras and social media networks the group is emblematic of the kind of citizen journalism that has flipped the script on the traditional relationship between the people and the press. The group started with a generator, a modem, a laptop, an audio recorder and camera gear all loaded into an unwieldly shopping cart before abandoning their rig for an early Japanese streaming app called TwitCasting. Midia NINJA covered the protests during the 2014 Fifa World Cup. But for all of their innovations, groups like Midia NINJA were matched in Rio by the phone and computer intercepting technologies the police used to identify protestors and citizen journalists before harassing, intimidating and arresting them. The biggest impact this kind of surveillance has on activism might be the chilling affect that can kill a movement before it even begins.
That said, Pencier included the Brazil chapter here because the energy and youthful outrage of the NINJAs balanced out much of the dark paranoia of the rest of his film.
“This is the world we live in in all aspects of all lives,” he says “Voting, and voting with your dollars is very possible, and corporations – like governments – have images and brands to protect. When those things are in jeopardy they are compelled to act – they’re in uncharted territories with these technologies themselves. Anyone who’s worried about the state of things need to hold the platforms we use to account as well as the government. There are things you can do in both directions.”
Also, be sure to put some tape over your webcam.