The battle for control of cyberspace


First aired on Spark (31/05/13)

For the most part, social media has been seen as playing a positive role in political contexts, such as the popular uprisings against autocratic governments in Egypt and Tunisia. The internet seems like a tool of liberation -- but according to Ron Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, "there are dark clouds forming on the horizon." In his new book, Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace, he examines the looming threats to internet freedom.

Deibert argues that cyberspace is becoming increasing "securitized," and that brings with it some troubling developments. "Secrecy is one. The predominance of military and intelligence agencies is another. Trying to govern a domain through hierarchy and closure, and so on," he told Spark host Nora Young in a recent interview. "In a world of so much seeming transparency, we're delegating authority over essentially our public sphere to some of the world's most secretive agencies."


It was initially thought that the Syrian uprising would follow the pattern of the Arab Spring, and that social media would enable the dissidents. But that's not what's happening, according to Deibert. "The Syrian opposition is routinely targeted with malicious's put many people on the opposition side at great risk," he said. He also cited the actions of "a group of pro-government electronic actors" who are getting increasingly sophisticated. They were able to hack into the Twitter account of Associated Press, and post a false tweet that the White House had been bombed.

Deibert is also worried by the level of government control over the internet. He acknowledged that some government involvement is inevitable. "Cybersecurity is at the top of the international agenda," he said. "The issue is that we don't want a heavy hand. We don't want them to impose controls that territorialize the internet, because ultimately, in my opinion, if we are going to survive as a species, all the problems we have...we need a single communications environment through which we can share ideas and debate."

But why care about government control of the internet if it doesn't have an impact on us personally? Deibert points to a "demographic shift" that is taking place in cyberspace. "The vast majority of users come from the developing world right now...unfortunately, most of those users live in autocratic, failed, fragile states, authoritarian regimes. Many of them use the technology differently than how we use it." In Black Code, he examines the practices of militants in Somalia and criminal organizations in Mexico. "Over time, just as we gave cyberspace, the internet, its character, based on our norms, our culture, it will change over time, based on the users coming from these regions."

Deibert is also concerned about governments launching malware attacks. It's widely believed that the U.S. and Israel created the computer worm Stuxnet, which targeted Iran's nuclear facilities. "Stuxnet has shown it is certainly possible to engage in sabotage of critical infrastructure through cyberspace. The big, troubling concern I have is that governments are now devoting a lot of their resources within their armed forces to refining techniques like Stuxnet," Deibert said, adding that it could lead to "an arms race in cyberspace."

Deibert acknowledges that some government control is necessary in order to deal with major security threats. But he believes we're not going about it the right way. " The principles we need to remind ourselves of actually go back to Ancient Greece," he said. These include oversight, and a system of checks and balances. "We've really gone overboard, in my opinion, delegating so much power and authority to secretive agencies to control this space that is ultimately a public domain."

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