Nicholas de Pencier Talks Cyber Security, Spying and His New Documentary 'Black Code'

The film is based on a book from University of Toronto professor Ronald Deibert
Nicholas de Pencier Talks Cyber Security, Spying and His New Documentary 'Black Code'
Let's face it: most of us know embarrassingly little about the technologies that we use on a day-to-day basis. That's a reality that governments and corporations are often more than happy to exploit.

It's also something Nicholas de Pencier was reminded of while reading Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace by University of Toronto professor and cyber security wizard Ronald Deibert, which inspired him to turn the book into a documentary.

"I was mostly amazed how much I didn't know about what Ron was saying was going on," de Pencier tells Exclaim! "That revelation for me was what led me to the film: 'If I'm this amazed by what I'm learning, maybe this is a more universal story that an audience would also be interested in.'"

The movie begins with an exploration of GhostNet, a massive Chinese spying network that Deibert's Citizen Lab helped expose after the Dalai Lama's private office was identified as a potential target. 

From Dharamsala, India — where the exiled Tibetan government is headquartered — the film travels to Pakistan, Brazil and Jordan, telling the stories of activists who have resisted state oppression via technology and often being punished for those actions via cyber surveillance and censorship. 

An especially memorable story was a popular activist being detained during FIFA World Cup protests, and only acquitted because of smartphone footage that clearly showed that he didn't commit the crime he was accused of.

De Pencier — who worked as producer and cinematographer on previous documentaries including Manufactured Landscapes and Watermark — says that it was important to ground the film in specific stories and people, as there's a lot of "meta-level policy theory stuff" involved. He travelled as a crew of one to each location.

"You can have a lot of computer people sitting in front of screens talking, and then your eyes would glaze over and you'd fall asleep," he says. "In the end, my biggest challenge wasn't so much making into a film that had some visual interest but finding a through line through a massive topic."

Another significant challenge, he says, was making sure that interview subjects wouldn't have their safety and security compromised as a result of participating in the film. De Pencier employed a "rigorous process" to ensure that people knew what the possible implications were: "People are incredibly brave," he says. "My job was to make sure as well they weren't being naively brave." 

A key takeaway is that so-called "liberation technologies" can often have a reverse effect: for instance, interview subject Wjd Dhnie was tortured by the Syrian government because of anti-government posts on his personal Facebook page, while Ethiopian activist Tadesse Kersmo was spied on via his computer. 

That's where things have become a battle of the minds, with activists and programmers often coming up with new ways of ensuring privacy and security. De Pencier himself was set up with PGP-encrypted email and chat for the project, and encrypted interview footage whenever he was travelling back from a shoot.

"It's kind of a new dynamic in journalism and in frontline human rights defenders: if they're going and gathering these things, some of which might be incriminating to their subjects and their laptop gets seized crossing a border then you could be responsible for breaking that first principle of 'do no harm,'" he says.

However, De Pencier notes that he hasn't ended up becoming a "proselytizer about encryption technologies" as they can often be cumbersome to apply to every online communication and requires both people to be familiar with the process.

De Pencier says Deibert is working on a follow-up book to Black Code, and there might be another collaborative project in the future.

"It's such a quickly moving target that you could start right now and make a completely different film with all the updates going on," he concludes. "It's all moving at a pretty breakneck pace."

Black Code opens in Toronto and Vancouver on April 14 and will expand to other Canadian cinemas throughout the spring.