Book Review: Ronald Deibert’s “Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace”

by on July 16, 2013 · 2 comments

Black Code coverRonald J. Deibert is the director of The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and the author of an important new book, Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace, an in-depth look at the growing insecurity of the Internet. Specifically, Deibert’s book is a meticulous examination of the “malicious threats that are growing from the inside out” and which “threaten to destroy the fragile ecosystem we have come to take for granted.” (p. 14) It is also a remarkably timely book in light of the recent revelations about NSA surveillance and how it is being facilitated with the assistance of various tech and telecom giants.

The clear and colloquial tone that Deibert employs in the text helps make arcane Internet security issues interesting and accessible. Indeed, some chapters of the book almost feel like they were pulled from the pages of techno-thriller, complete with villainous characters, unexpected plot twists, and shocking conclusions. “Cyber crime has become one of the world’s largest growth businesses,” Deibert notes (p. 144) and his chapters focus on many prominent recent examples, including cyber-crime syndicates like Koobface, government cyber-spying schemes like GhostNet, state-sanctioned sabotage like Stuxnet, and the vexing issue of zero-day exploit sales.

Deibert is uniquely qualified to narrate this tale not just because he is a gifted story-teller but also because he has had a front row seat in the unfolding play that we might refer to as “How Cyberspace Grew Less Secure.” Indeed, he and his colleagues at The Citizen Lab have occasionally been major players in this drama as they have researched and uncovered various online vulnerabilities affecting millions of people across the globe. (I have previously reviewed and showered praise on a couple important books that Deibert co-edited with scholars from The Citizen Lab and Harvard’s Berkman Center, including: Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace and Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering. They are truly outstanding resources worthy of your attention.)

Black Code’s Many Meanings

So, what is “black code” and why should we be worried about it? Deibert uses the term as a metaphor for many closely related concerns. Most generally it includes “that which is hidden, obscured from the view of the average Internet user.” (p. 6) More concretely, it refers to “the criminal forces that are increasingly insinuating themselves into cyberspace, gradually subverting it from the inside out.” (p. 7) “Those who take advantage of the Internet’s vulnerabilities today are not just juvenile pranksters or frat house brats,” Deibert notes, “they are organized criminal groups, armed militants, and nation states.” (p. 7-8) Which leads to the final way Deibert uses the term “black code.” It also, he says, “refers to the growing influence of national security agencies, and the expanding network of contractors and companies with whom they work.” (p. 8)

Deibert is worried about the way these forces and factors are working together to undermine online stability and security, and even delegitimize liberal democracy itself. His thesis is probably most succinctly captured in this passage from Chapter 7:

We live in an era of unprecedented access to information, and many political parties campaign on platforms of transparency and openness. And yet, at the same time, we are gradually shifting the policing of cyberspace to a dark world largely free from public accountability and independent oversight. In entrusting more and more information to third parties, we are signing away legal protections that should be guaranteed by those who have our data. Perversely, in liberal democratic countries we are lowering the standards around basic rights to privacy just as the center of cyberspace gravity is shifting to less democratic parts of the world. (p. 130-1)

What Deibert is grappling with in this book is the same fundamental problem that has long plagued the Internet: How do you preserve the benefits associated with the most open and interconnected “network of networks” the world has ever known while also remedying the various vulnerabilities and pathologies created by that same openness and interconnectedness?  Deibert acknowledges this problem, noting:

Ever since the Internet emerged from the world of academia into the world of the rest of us, its growth trajectory has been shadowed by a grey economy that thrives on opportunities for enrichment made possible by an open, globally connected infrastructure. (p. 141)

The Paradox of the Net’s Open, Interconnected Nature

Again, paradoxically, this inherent instability and vulnerability is due precisely to the Net’s open and globally interconnected nature. And many governments are looking to exploit that fact. “These unfortunate by-products of an open, dynamic network are exacerbated by increasing assertions of state power,” Deibert notes. (p. 233)

More generally, this uncomfortable fact—that the Net’s open, interconnected nature leads to both enormous benefits as well as huge vulnerabilities—isn’t just true for criminal online activity or the cyber-espionage activities that various nation-states are pursuing today. It is equally true for everything online today. There is a sort of yin and the yang to the Net that is simply undeniable and completely unavoidable. For one issue after another we find that the Net’s greatest blessing—its open, interconnected nature—is also its greatest curse.

For example, as I noted here recently in my review of Abraham H. Foxman and Christopher Wolf ‘s new book, Viral Hate: Containing Its Spread on the Internet, the open and interconnected Internet gives us “the most widely accessible, unrestricted communications platform the world has ever known” but also  means we have to tolerate a great many imbeciles “who use it to spew insulting, vile, and hateful comments.” The same is true for other types of online speech and content: You have access to an abundance of informational riches, but there’s also no avoiding all the garbage out there now, too.

Similarly, as I noted in my essay, “Privacy as an Information Control Regime: The Challenges Ahead,” the open and interconnected Internet has given us historically unparalleled platforms for social interaction and commerce. But that same openness and interconnectedness has left us with a world of hyper-exposure and a variety of privacy and surveillance threats—not just from governments and large corporations, but also from each other.

And then there’s the never-ending story of digital copyright. On one hand, the open and globally interconnected network or networks has provided us with an amazing platform for sharing knowledge, art, and expression. On the other hand, as I noted in this essay on “The Twilight of Copyright,” creators of expressive works have less security than ever before in terms of how they can control and monetize their artistic and scientific inventions.

I could go on and on—as I did in my essays on “Copyright, Privacy, Property Rights & Information Control: Common Themes, Common Challenges” and “When It Comes to Information Control, Everybody Has a Pet Issue & Everyone Will Be Disappointed”—but the moral of the story is pretty clear: The Internet giveth and the Internet taketh away. Openness and interconnectedness offer us enormous benefits but also force us to confront major risks as the price of admission to this wonderful network.

Will the Whole System Collapse?

The uncomfortable question that Deibert’s book tees up for discussion is: When will this balance get completely out of whack in terms of online security? Or, has it already? In some portions of the text, he hints that may already be the case. Consider this passage in Chapter 11 in which Deibert discusses whether the Chicken Little-ism of digital security worry-warts like Eugene Kaspersky and Richard Clarke is warranted:

Eugene Kaspersky, Richard Clarke, and others may sound like broken records or self-serving fear mongers, but there is no denying the evolving cyberspace ecosystem around us: we are building a digital edifice for the entire planet, and it sits above us like a house of cards. We are wrapping ourselves in expanding layers of digital instructions, protocols, and authentication mechanisms, some them open scrutinized, and regulated, but many closed, amorphous, and poised for abuse, buried in the black arts of espionage, intelligence gathering, and cyber and military affairs. Is it only a matter of time before the whole system collapses? (p. 186)

That sounds horrific, but is it really the case that the entire system really about to collapse? And, if so, what are we going to do about it?

This raises a small problem with Deibert’s book. He does such a nice job itemizing and describing these security vulnerabilities that by the time the reader wades through 230 pages and nears the end of the book, they are left in a highly demoralized state, searching for some hope and a concrete set of practical solutions. Unfortunately, they won’t find an abundance of either in Deibert’s brief closing chapter, “Toward Distributed Security and Stewardship in Cyberspace.”

Don’t get me wrong; I agree with the general thrust of Deibert’s framework, which I describe below. The problem is that it is highly aspirational in nature and lacks specifics. Perhaps that is simply because there are no easy answers here. Digital security is damn hard and, as with most other online pathologies out there, no silver-bullet solutions exist.

Deibert notes that some government officials will seek to exploit those vulnerabilities—many of which they created themselves—to expand their authority over the Internet. “Faced with mounting problems and pressures to do something, too many policy-makers are tempted by extreme solutions,” he notes. (p. 234) He worries about “a movement towards clamp down” that would be “antithetical to the principles of liberal democratic government” by undermining checks and balances and accountability. (p. 235) In turn, this will undermine the “mixed common-pool resource” that is the current Internet.

Deibert’s alternative cyber security strategy to counter the push to “clamp down” is based on three interrelated notions or components:

  1. Principles of restraint or “mutual restraint”: “Securing cyberspace requires a reinforcement, rather than a relaxation, of restraint on power, including checks and balances on governments, law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and on the private sector,” he argues. (p. 239)
  2. “Distributed security”: “The Internet functions precisely because of the absence of centralized control, because of thousands of loosely coordinated monitoring mechanisms,” Deibert notes. “While these decentralized mechanisms are not perfect and can occasionally fail, they form the basis of a coherent distributed security strategy. Bottom-up, ‘grassroots’ solutions to the Internet’s security problems are consistent with principles of openness, avoid heavy-handedness, and provide checks and balances against the concentrations of power,” he observes. (p. 240)
  3. “Stewardship” which Deibert defines as “an ethic of responsible behavior in regard to shared resources” and which, he argues, “would moderate the dangerously escalating exercise of state power in cyberspace by defining limits and setting thresholds of accountability and mutual restraint.” (p. 243)

Again, as an aspirational vision statement this all generally sounds fairly sensible, but the details are lacking. I think Deibert would have been wise to spend a bit more time developing this alternative “bottom-up” vision of how online security should work and bolstering it with case studies.

Digital Security without Top-Down Controls

Luckily, as my Mercatus Center colleague Eli Dourado noted in an important June 2012 white paper, distributed security and stewardship strategies are already working reasonably well today. Dourado’s paper, “Internet Security Without Law: How Service Providers Create Order Online,” documented the many informal institutions that enforce network security norms on the Internet and shows how cooperation among a remarkably varied set of actors improves online security without extensive regulation or punishing legal liability. “These informal institutions carry out the functions of a formal legal system—they establish and enforce rules for the prevention, punishment, and redress of cybersecurity-related harms,” Dourado noted.

For example, a diverse array of computer security incident response teams (CSIRTs) operates around the globe and share their research and coordinate their responses to viruses and other online attacks. Individual Internet service providers (ISPs), domain name registrars, and hosting companies, work with these CSIRTs and other individuals and organizations to address security vulnerabilities. A growing market for private security consultants and software providers also competes to offer increasingly sophisticated suites of security products for businesses, households, and governments.

A great deal of security knowledge is also “crowd-sourced” today via online discussion forums and security blogs that feature contributions from experts and average users alike. University-based computer science and cyberlaw centers (like Citizen Lab) and experts have also helped by creating projects like “Stop Badware,” which originated at Harvard University but then grew into a broader non-profit organization with diverse financial support.

Dourado continues on in his paper to show how these informal, bottom-up efforts to coordinate security responses offer several advantages over top-down government solutions, such as administrative regulation or punishing liability regimes.

Dourado’s description of the ideal approach to online security is entirely consistent with Deibert’s vision in Black Code. In fact, Deibert notes, “It is important to remind ourselves that in spite of the threats, cyberspace runs well and largely without persistent disruption. On a technical level, this efficiency is founded on open and distributed networks of local engineers who share information as peers,” he observes. (p. 240) That is exactly right, but I wish Deibert would have spent more time discussing how this system works in practice today and how it can be tweaked and improved to head off the heavy-handed and very costly top-down solutions that we both dread.

Toward Resiliency

But there’s one other thing I wish Deibert would have explored in the book: resiliency, or how we have adapted to various cyber-vulnerabilities over time.

For example, in another recent Mercatus Center study entitled “Beyond Cyber Doom: Cyber Attack Scenarios and the Evidence of History,” Sean Lawson, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah, has stressed the importance of resiliency as it pertains to cybersecurity and concerns about “cyberwar.” “Research by historians of technology, military historians, and disaster sociologists has shown consistently that modern technological and social systems are more resilient than military and disaster planners often assume,” he writes. “Just as more resilient technological systems can better respond in the event of failure, so too are strong social systems better able to respond in the event of disaster of any type.”

More generally, as I noted in my recent law review article on “technopanics” and “threat inflation” in information technology policy debates:

while it is certainly true that “more could be done” to secure networks and critical systems, panic is unwarranted because much is already being done to harden systems and educate the public about risks. Various digital attacks will continue, but consumers, companies, and others organizations are learning to cope and become more resilient in the face of those threats.

What Professor Lawson and I are getting at in our respective articles is that the ability of organizations, institutions, and individuals to bounce back from adversity is a frequently unheralded feature of various systems and that it deserves more serious study. (See Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy’s nice book, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, for more on this general topic). In the context of online security, what is most remarkable to me is not that the Internet suffers from vulnerabilities due to its open and interconnected nature; it’s that we don’t suffer far more damage as a result.

This gets us back to that very profound question that Deibert poses in Black Code: “Is it only a matter of time before the whole system collapses?” The better question, I think, is: why hasn’t the system already collapsed? Perhaps the answer is, because things haven’t gotten bad enough yet. But I believe that the more realistic answer is that: individuals and institutions often learn how to cope and become resilient in the face of adversity. This is partially the case online because of the stewardship and distributed, decentralized security we already see at work today that makes digital life tolerable.

But it has to be something more than that. After all, many of the security problems that Deibert describes in his book are quite serious and already affect millions of us today. How, then, are we getting by right now? Again, I think the answer has to be that adaptation and resiliency are at work on many different levels of online life.

Consider, for example, how we have learned to deal with spam, viruses, online porn, various online advertising and privacy concerns, and so on. Our adaptation to these threats and annoyances has not been perfectly smooth, of course. No doubt, some people would still like “something to be done” about these things. But isn’t it remarkable how we have, nonetheless, carried on with online commerce and interactive social life even as these problems have persisted?


Going forward, therefore, perhaps there are some reasons for hope. Perhaps the various generic strategies that Deibert outlines in his book, coupled with the remarkable ability of humans to roll with the punches and adapt, will help us come out of this just fine (or at least reasonably well).

Of course, it could also be the case that these security concerns just multiply and that the Internet then morphs into sometime quite different than the interconnected “network of networks” we know today. As I noted in my 2009 essay on “Internet Security Concerns, Online Anonymity, and Splinternets,” we might be moving toward a world with more separate dis­connected digital networks and online “gated communities.” This could take place spontaneously over time and be driven by corporations seeking to satisfy the demand of some consumers for safer and more secure online experiences. As I noted in my review of Jonathan Zittrain’s book, The Future of the Internet, I am actually fine with some of that. I think we can live in a hybrid world of “walled gardens” alongside of the “Wild West” open Internet, so long as this occurs in a spontaneous, organic, bottom-up fashion. [For a more extensive discussion, see my book chapter, “The Case for Internet Optimism, Part 2 – Saving the Net From Its Supporters.”]

If, however, this “splintering” of the Net is done from the top-down through intentional (or even incidental) government action, then it is far more problematic. We already see signs, for example, that Russia is pushing even more strongly in that direction in the wake of the NSA leaks. (See “N.S.A. Leaks Revive Push in Russia to Control Net,” New York Times, July 14.) The Russians have been using amorphous security concerns to push for greater Internet control for some time now. Of course, China has been there for years. So have many Middle Eastern countries. Of course, there’s no guarantee that their respective “splinternets” are, or would be, any more secure than today’s Internet, but it sure would make those networks far more susceptible to state control and surveillance. If that’s our future, then it certainly is a dismal one.

Anyway, read Ron Deibert’s Black Code for an interesting exploration of these and other issues. It’s an excellent contribution to field of Internet policy studies and a book that I’ll be recommending to others for many years to come.


Additional resources:

Other books you should read alongside “Black Code” (links are for my reviews of each book):

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