The real problem with PRISM is that it threatens democracy: Peter Nowak

Too much power corrupts.

(Photo: Richard Newstead/Getty Images)

(Photo: Richard Newstead/Getty Images)

Ron Diebert considers himself unfortunately lucky in that he has a new book out, Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace, that’s all about the sort of government privacy abuses currently making big headlines. It’s a paradoxical situation to be in—he wishes things like the U.S. National Security Agency’s PRISM program weren’t happening, but they are, and that’s giving his perfectly timed work a bump.

“It’s an amazing coincidence. I don’t know if that will translate into sales but it’s certainly getting attention for the book,” he says.

Black Code looks at some of the work Diebert and his Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto have been doing since 2002. The idea behind the lab is simple—its student and academic supporters use the same technological tools to track security agencies as those bodies use to spy on other individuals and organizations. Their mission is to track “use of political power in cyberspace.”

The group has uncovered such events as China’s spying on the Dalai Lama, as well as the spread of the Koobface worm, which scraped information from millions of Facebook users. The central message of Diebert’s stark-and-sometimes-grim book, and the Citizen Lab in general, is that tabs must be kept on those who hold power so that they do not abuse it through technological means.

“As history has shown, there are certainly many episodes where individuals or groups are able to abuse concentrated power and quell political dissent,” he says. “That’s something we cannot accept if we hope to maintain a liberal, democratic society here in Canada, let alone the rest of the world.”

The current PRISM controversy—which has the NSA gathering data without a warrant on every-day citizens through Internet services like Google and Facebook—is not news to anyone who has been following cyber-surveillance. It has been going on in one form or another since at least just after Sept. 11, 2001, when President George W. Bush gave the go-ahead to Operation Stellar Wind, a huge, legally questionable data mining operation directed at every-day people.

The difference this time, Diebert says, is how angry the public seems to be. “Never before have you seen this type of public and outrage and curiosity. It’s crossed an important threshold in that regard, so I think it won’t go away.”

President Barack Obama is sticking to defending the program, but the horse is out of the barn, he adds. Mobile phone proliferation, cloud services and social networking have coalesced into the perfect pressure situation, where people are now more aware than ever that they are generating a good deal of data that can be turned against them. They’re starting to direct that pressure back at the governments and companies that provide the services, which is why the likes of Facebook and Yahoo have recently released transparency reports.

The boiling point was due sooner or later, Diebert says, because eventually some insiders—such as the NSA’s William Binney, who last year spilled the beans on Stellar Wind, and PRISM’s Edward Snowden—would find that they could no longer stomach what they were doing.

“It was inevitable at some point that whistleblowers would start to emerge and people would start wrestling with their conscience on what they see on the inside,” he says.

Security defenders, for their part, often suggest that only bad social elements such as criminals and terrorists have anything to fear from such government surveillance. Diebert says that logic is disingenuous, first because mistakes are made—the case of wrongfully imprisoned Maher Ahar is a great example—but also because it’s besides the point. Checks and balances on power abuse have been an integral part of liberal, democratic societies since Ancient Greece, and they need to be maintained.

“We have to guard against it, regardless of the technological environment,” he says. “Governments are made up of human beings who are corruptible.”

In the end, the existence of programs such as PRISM and Stellar Wind is disheartening for Diebert, since democratic societies are supposed to be better than the less-free countries they often condemn. That somewhat depressing message is the heart of his book.

“We need to get out own house in order before we worry about the Chinas and Irans,” he says.