Book Review: “Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace”

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Ronald J. Deibert’s most recent book, Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspaceis a thorough exploration of the varied powers attempting to exert control over the Internet. In particular, Deibert focuses on the conflicts that arise from governmental, criminal, and corporate attempts to corral the ever expanding population of Internet users.

The perspective Deibert offers on these issues is the truly unique, defining feature of this book. His work with the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto has placed him in the nexus of conflict without requiring his allegiance to government or corporate (or criminal) interests. From this location, Deibert acts as storyteller, informing his audience of various battles and sites of struggle, including governmental censorship, online criminal gangs and data theft, and the ungainly disposal of a banner at the Internet Governance Forum. These stories are tied together by Deibert’s analysis of the trends underpinning each event and explanations of prevailing forces in each scenario.

At the heart of this text is Deibert’s call for balance in the dialectic between Internet security and openness. Unlike those who would call for strict governance of the Internet, Deibert reasons, “before extreme solutions are adopted we must address the core value that underpins cyberspace itself: ensuring that it remains secure, but also open and dynamic, a communications system for citizens the world over.”

As one progresses through Black Code, the threats of regulation and deregulation become palpable. On the one hand, the Internet has become home to myriad criminal groups who use the platform to intimidate the public and steal money and information. On the other hand, there are governments that demand online censorship and use Internet activity as a way to spy on their citizens and other political bodies. If the web becomes highly regulated with each user openly identified, then the world loses all of the potential inherent in free, unregulated speech. However, the threat of anonymous criminal activity—whether it be a group of Russians infecting users with fraudulent anti-virus programs or members of Anonymous bringing down websites with distributed denial of service attacks—is justification enough for many to want tighter restrictions on how we access the Internet.

While the question of trading an open communication platform for security may be black and white for some, Deibert complicates the matter by acknowledging those instances where criminal, government, and sometimes corporate interests can overlap. Cyberwar and acts of online espionage are becoming far more frequent, and malicious code is not solely the property of the easily villainized hackers we tend to imagine. Deibert provides numerous examples of governments and state-sanctioned groups that have deployed similar measures, such as the Stuxnet virus, which shut down an Iranian nuclear enrichment plant and was traced to the United States and Israel. In Black Code, the articulation of this development tells us that this threat looms large, and even though cyberwar may be described as “clean,” it can have enormous consequences. Describing our situation as being “[wrapped] in expanding layers of digital instructions, protocols, and authentication mechanisms, some of them open, scrutinized, and regulated, but many of them closed, amorphous, and poised for abuse,” Deibert rightly asks, “is it only a matter of time before the whole system collapses?” As a reader, one echoes the sentiment, wondering if we are indeed perpetually poised on the brink of an internet apocalypse.

Despite the technical nature of the subject, Black Code is exceedingly readable, and Deibert’s voice provides a personal tone to what is sometimes unsettling information. Some of the most engaging material in the book comes from Deibert’s own experiences with The Citizen Lab, studying and hunting down those behind various cyber-espionage campaigns. The reader is left with little question of Deibert’s expertise of the subject, though there is a question of what one can do to protect themselves and the Internet.

Black Code concludes with the suggestion of distributed governance. After all, the Internet is structurally based on the principle of distribution instead of centralization. However, after 14 chapters describing government surveillance, censorship, criminal theft, and cyberwar, one is left a bit unnerved. The next time we go online, we might be watched by our government or have our credit card number stolen, provided we are able to connect to the Internet at all—it may have been cut as an act of war or by our own government as a silencing technique. For all of the advances and freedoms granted by this ubiquitous communication network, there are many dangerous actors at play, and this text provides incredible insight into the multitude of forces grappling for control of the Internet. Deibert’s Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace is genuinely disturbing for those who were not aware of the darker side of the web, just as it should be.

In his keynote address to the 2013 Frontiers of New Media Symposium, Deibert will discuss his proposal from Black Code for a more decentralized form of cybersecurity.

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