Cyberspace “action hero” issues wakeup call


PAOLA SCATTOLON Ron Deibert at Canadian Science Writers' Association conference

Kelly Haggart
Canadians need to wake up to the social forces shaping – and threatening – the Internet they take for granted, says Ron Deibert, director of the digital watchdog group Citizen Lab. An “epochal shift” is occurring that requires an urgent global conversation on the governance of cyberspace, and it should start at home, he said.
“At the Citizen Lab, we’ve built a kind of digital early warning system,” he told about 100 people at a science writers conference in Toronto. “What we’ve seen is trouble brewing on the horizon for an open and secure communications system for the planet as a whole.”
Online censorship, surveillance, and militarization risk destroying the hard-won gains of that system, he said. “We can’t let that happen, and science writers have a critical role to play in communicating this concern to audiences around the world.”
“21st century action hero”
IDRC sponsored Deibert’s keynote address at the June 2014 Canadian Science Writers’ Association conference, held at the University of Toronto. A long-time funder of the Citizen Lab, IDRC supports its Cyber Stewards Network of 14 organizations around the world promoting cyber security approaches that respect openness and human rights.
Penny Park introducing Ron Deibert at 2014 CSWA conferenceIntroducing the talk, Penny Park, executive director of the Science Media Centre of Canada, called Deibert “a 21st century action hero” striving to lift the lid on an increasingly dark and covert digital sphere.
She noted that the Citizen Lab this year became the first Canadian organization to win a prestigious MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions, with the foundation that awards the million-dollar prize praising the power and relevance of its work. Deibert founded the pioneering cyber security research group, based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, in early 2001.
Digital exhaust
Three big social forces shaping the global communications landscape “are important to understand if you want to get a grasp on where things are going,” Deibert said. He called the first of these drivers “probably the most profound change in communications in all of human history, just in the past five to 10 years.”
Three technologies lie at the heart of “the supernova explosion we’ve been going through” – mobile connectivity, social media, and cloud computing. These share an important, and risky, characteristic – “the amount of data that used to be in our filing cabinets, in our drawers, even in our heads, that we now entrust to third parties. And most of those third parties are private companies, many of which are headquartered in jurisdictions other than the ones we’re citizens of.”
Woman in Haiti with mobile phoneThe “digital exhaust” we emit from our mobile phones and other devices as we go about our daily lives “is profoundly consequential, and it’s getting worse, with the Internet of things,” he said. “There are now something like 15 billion Internet-connected devices, and they are all emitting fine-grained information about our movement, habits, interests, social relationships, networks, and so on. All that information is out there to be shared and analyzed.”
New domain of warfare
The second important social force is the growing role of the state in cyberspace, Deibert said. Until 10 or 15 years ago, most governments either had no policy in this area or took a deliberately laissez-faire approach.
“Fast-forward to today, and cyber security is at the top of the agenda for just about every country,” he said. A major ideological and institutional shift occurred in 2005, when the US Pentagon formally classified cyberspace as the fifth domain of warfare, alongside land, sea, air, and space.
“They saw this as a new environment they needed to dominate and so they set up Cyber Command,” he said. With other countries following suit, “we now have an arms race in cyberspace. Dozens of countries have cyber commands or their equivalents in their armed forces, preparing to fight and win wars in the domain of ideas — the communications environment that we all live in.
“What does it mean when war is constant, global in scope, and the battlefield is the realm of ideas and public dialogue?” he asked. “Certainly a question to ponder.”
Men in India with mobile phonesCyberspace tilts South
The third social force, Deibert said, is the major demographic shift occurring as “the centre of cyberspace gravity moves from the North and West of the planet, where it was invented, to the South and East.”
People in the developing world are connecting to the Internet at an astonishing pace, and the vast majority live in authoritarian countries, he said. The Citizen Lab has helped to expose the shadowy market in advanced censorship and surveillance tools designed by technology firms in developed countries and snapped up by repressive governments.
“Millions of people are coming online quickly in democratically challenged countries that don’t share our basic values,” Deibert said. “The future of the Internet will be decided by those countries and the culture that surrounds the technology there — that’s the horizon we have to worry about now.”
The stakes could hardly be higher. Retaining a healthy liberal democracy in this technological age will require citizens to become much more engaged in an informed debate on cyberspace governance, security, and fundamental rights and freedoms online, he said. “We’re going into this sleepwalking, and we need to wake up.”
Kelly Haggart is a senior writer at IDRC.
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Photos: Paola Scattolon; Gates Foundation; Dipankar Dutta/flickr