Anyone with access to a computer now lives in public whether they like it or not. On a daily basis and often without knowing what we’re doing, we are entrusting private information and data to third parties who seek to profit from it. Thanks to mobile devices, cloud storage, and social media, almost any third party can access details about our lives even if we don’t consent to it directly. For many, such information is hardly revelatory at this point and is the subject of countless books, journalistic articles, nightly news reports, and documentaries. Canadian filmmaker Nicholas de Pencier only outlines those basic post-Edward Snowden truths for context before turning his documentary Black Code into a more pointed look at how such information is used to both fuel and squash dissent around the world.
For much of his direction and thesis, de Pencier turns to Professor Ronald J. Deibart from the University of Toronto’s Munk School and Deibart’s book “Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace“. With Deibart and his colleagues on hand as indispensable guides through a world fraught with subterfuge and misinformation at every turn, de Pencier takes viewers to various locations around the world where freedom of information has been both a help and a hindrance to everyday citizens. Black Code travels to the Bahnhof Data Centre in Stockholm to show viewers the closest thing we have to the physical embodiment of the internet, protests in Rio designed to showcase the marginalization of impoverished peoples during the World Cup several years ago, top secret trade shows where government organizations buy and sell malware to gain information by any means necessary, and to Tibet, the most suppressed and surveilled country in the world today. Black Code illustrates how governments are able to suppress political resistance in emerging countries like Uganda and Ethiopia, where only 2% of the countries’ populations have access to the internet, and how citizen journalists and activists in Syria play a dangerous game of cat and mouse to get information about the ongoing civil war out of the country.
There’s no shortage of examples of privacy breeches throughout Black Code, and the results at times can be quite overwhelming without necessarily being eye opening to those who pay attention to the news closely. Where de Pencier (best known as a cinematographer on documentaries like Watermark and The Ghosts in Our Machine) excels, however, is in making sure that the human element and personal stakes are never lost when talking about his specific contextual asides. Everyone profiled in Black Code has a lot to lose by coming forward with their struggles, and in some cases have been brought to points in their lives so low that nothing is left to lose.
More important to his and Deibart’s points about how worldwide hacking rings like GhostNet can operate more or less with impunity in 103 countries at the same time (including Canada and the U.S.), de Pencier makes it known that the biggest security threats to citizens around the world exist in places often designated as third-world countries. Many already know that the internet can act as an incubator for seditious, hateful, and unlawful acts, but in the emerging world the consequences of these actions can have crippling effects that often go unnoticed by the international community. Firewalls can be built around entire countries (with Pakistan being used as a primary example), military manoeuvres can be played out over Facebook, and the most horrific and troubling things imaginable can be found via a simple Google search.
It’s not all gloom and doom throughout Black Code. Especially in the cases of the brave Syrians being profiled and people banding together to clear the name of a Brazilian protestor, there are flashes of hope, and proof that malware and spyware are double edged swords for anyone using them. Moments like this give Black Code necessary journalistic balance, but still never makes the documentary feel more than a list of good examples of malfeasance. There’s a good outlining of things being done and how some are working to bring these issues to light, but not much of an idea what to do with all this information outside of asking the viewer to question everything they know about the internet, which is a valid point, but a lot to take in at once. To distill all of these stories and problems down to a single film might be a bit of a fool’s errand, but de Pencier does the best he can to contain it all.