Innerview: Ron Deibert

Cyberterrorism, cyberwar, espionage, the Great Firewall of China, surveillance, human rights, Snowden, insurgencies, computer network attacks, hacking, data sweeping…  The Vision Machine had the extraordinary opportunity to interview Ron Deibert, Professor of Political Science in the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.  Deibert runs the Citizen Lab, a large interdisciplinary research facility that endeavors to track attempts by state and non-state actors to control the flow of information in cyberspace.  This interview, conducted by Seb Kaempf, plums Deibert’s extensive knowledge of how the gears of the net really turn and its possibilities for both democratic and authoritarian politics.  In addition to the reports generated by the Citizen Lab itself, Deibert has most recently authored the book Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace (Random House, 2013).

6 thoughts on “Innerview: Ron Deibert

  1. The University of Queensland POLS3512 (Dr Sebastian Kaempf) Critical Blog Assignment:

    The Vision Machine’s “Innerview” with professor of political science Ron Deibert explores the topics of surveillance, human rights, cyberwar and cyberterrorism, all themes that hold great significance in contemporary political and security debates. The Innerview is filmed at Prof Deibert’s interdisciplinary research facility at the University of Toronto – the “Citizen Lab”.

    At the start of the Innerview, Prof Deibert makes it clear that the goal of the Citizen Lab is to “lift the lid on the Internet”. Dr Sebastian Kaempf begins by asking about the differences between today’s hypertechnological age and the various technological advances that have occurred in the past. At this point, Prof Deibert is cautious about making any profound claims about our current era, but he does say that today’s hypertechnological society is remarkably different in that we have never before shared so much of our private lives with third party companies that are often not subject to our own jurisdiction. In fact, he argues, there is a dire need for a new social contract to protect the privacy of individuals and hold big data companies accountable. He then goes on to say that the power over this data actually lies in the hands of those who control the complex physical infrastructure of the Internet (e.g. Internet service providers, Internet exchange points, satellites, cables, etc.). If a government or a company controls the infrastructure, they can monitor and shape communications to exercise power. Prof Deibert then elaborates on how the flow of information and communication can be controlled, including the Internet censorship methods employed by states such as Iran and China.

    On the topic of cyberterrorism, Prof Deibert says the concept has been “grossly distorted” and is prone to inciting panic or startling people into accepting policies of mass surveillance. He believes that although the technology to organise violent terrorising events is developing, terrorist organisations do not currently prioritise such operations. Prof Deibert says it is far more effective and spectacular to perform a suicide bombing in a public place than it is to disrupt proceedings by using technology to hijack infrastructure – though this may change. As for cyberwar, he says certain groups such as the Syrian government have already used malware to infiltrate networks of opposition groups and use this information to target and kill these opponents. Prof Deibert considers these operations to be dangerous, but he is again reluctant to use the word terrorism because it is too “loaded”.

    In order to examine the strength of the arguments made in this Spotlight, they need to be placed in the context of the existing academic literature. For the purpose of brevity, only the concepts of cyberterrorism and the ethical debate surrounding Internet surveillance will be analysed here.

    On the controversial subjects of cyberterrorism and cyberwar, Prof Deibert is cautious of using terminology that might scare people into giving up their right to privacy without holding the government accountable. One of the main questions raised in the academic literature is whether or not such a threat exists in the first place. Goodman, Kirk and Kirk (2007: 193) argue that terrorist organisations are rapidly obtaining the capabilities to utilise cyberspace for terrorist attacks and that it is “likely” they will explore these avenues in the future. They outline various reasons why cyber terror would be an attractive option for these organisations, including: anonymity, force multiplication and psychological effects (Goodman, Kirk and Kirk 2007: 196-198). This argument contradicts that of Prof Deibert, as he believes cyberterrorism is not as attractive to terrorist groups as traditional operations like suicide bombing. Supporting this view is Rid’s (2012: 26) article, which states that terrorists use cyberspace as “neither just target nor weapon”, but rather as a platform for ideological debate and, to a lesser degree, for the dissemination of instructional material. Heickerö (2014: 564) agrees in that “the internet has become an important tool” for violent extremists, but he instead stresses the role played by cyberspace in the organisation and recruitment of terrorist groups. The article concludes by stating that it is currently unknown if terrorist organisations have the capacity to carry out physical attacks using cyberspace, which could include targeting air traffic control systems or energy infrastructure (Heickerö 2014: 564). Kenney’s (2015: 111) article reflects Prof Deibert’s views on how the threat of cyberterrorism has been overstated in sensationalist language by the United States government. Phrases such as “a cyber Pearl Harbour” and “[creating] worldwide havoc” have been used by various senior government figures in the past 15 years (Kenney 2015: 111-112). Kenney (2015: 128) concludes by supporting Prof Deibert’s statement that terrorists are currently more likely to carry out simpler and more conventional “flesh-and-blood” attacks than engage in cyberterrorism. However, like Prof Deibert, Kenney does not rule out an escalation into cyberterrorism in the future (2015: 128).

    The second argument to be discussed is Prof Deibert’s notion that if we are to protect the ideal of the Internet as the home of knowledge and discourse, we need to educate ourselves about the “technological ecosystem” surrounding us. This involves lobbying for a new social contract in order to protect our privacy. According to Nojeim and Kerr (2012: 75), access to third party records does pose a threat to personal privacy and creates challenges for the law. This hypertechnological era has made it easy for law enforcement agencies to collect data without our permission or knowledge, where it can be used against us in future legal proceedings (Nojeim and Kerr 2012: 75). Clarke (2015: 131) goes even further when he calls the recent data retention proposals in Australia “a comprehensive shambles”. He mirrors both Prof Deibert’s and Nojeim and Kerr’s views when he claims that similar policies around the world are fraught with technical and legal difficulties and concludes by advocating for a “set of Principles that can make good the current democratic deficit” (Clarke 2015: 132). Glenn Greenwald, one of the most vocal advocates of privacy in the surveillance age, also echoes this idea in his 2014 book No Place to Hide. In the epilogue, he argues for domestic legislative changes to protect privacy, as well as for Internet users to refuse the services of companies that provide data to the National Security Agency (NSA) (Greenwald 2014). These points support Prof Deibert’s warnings about sharing data with third parties and his statement that holding these companies accountable is a necessity.

    The above academic works view mass surveillance and data retention with varying degrees of caution and mistrust. In contrast, former NSA director Michael Hayden (2014: 22) likens the agency to a hard-done-by hero that must save his ungrateful townsfolk from danger. He quotes House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers as saying the NSA is “the only intelligence service on the planet that is under siege from its adversaries and from its internal support system, the citizens of the United States” (Hayden 2014: 23). Former head of US counterintelligence Michelle Van Cleave also depicts mass surveillance as a necessity (2013: 64). She describes the US as a “global intelligence apparatus” with “global responsibilities” that could not be fulfilled without the help of the NSA (2013: 64). Van Cleave concludes by stating that a complete “hands off” approach, as supported by some privacy activists, would only endanger citizens (2013: 64). Evidently, the ethics of mass surveillance is a contentious issue, with its supporters seeing it as a valuable tool in protecting a country’s citizens from harm. However, Prof Deibert’s argument is clearly situated on the side of privacy advocates such as Greenwald, who believe that drastic social change is necessary to safeguard the human rights of society.

    After this brief analysis of the academic literature, it can be concluded that there is little damaging counter-evidence against Prof Deibert’s main arguments. His viewpoints differ from certain pieces of literature in two aspects: his view that cyberterrorism is not currently an attractive option to terrorist organisations and his call for a new social contract to hold governments and private companies accountable. However, much of the academic literature does support the arguments he laid out in the Innerview.

    Overall, I found this spotlight informative and well put together. The only aspect I would improve would be that there are so many topics covered in one small interview. I believe it would be even more enlightening for viewers to have multiple interviews exploring some of the main topics Prof Deibert talked about in more depth. Personally, I would be interested in knowing more about the cyberterrorism debate, as well as any future legal implications of surrendering data to third party companies.

    Reference List:

    Clarke, Roger. 2015. ‘Data retention as mass surveillance: the need for an evaluative framework’. International Data Privacy Law 5(2): 121-132.

    Goodman, Seymour, Jessica Kirk and Megan Kirk. 2007. ‘Cyberspace as a medium for terrorists’. Technological Forecasting and Social Change 74(2): 193-210.

    Greenwald, Glenn. 2014. No Place to Hide. London: Penguin.

    Hayden, Michael. 2014. ‘Beyond Snowden: An NSA Reality Check’. World Affairs 176(5): 13-23.

    Heickerö, Roland. 2014. ‘Cyber Terrorism: Electronic Jihad’. Strategic Analysis 38(4): 554-565.

    Kenney, Michael. 2015. ‘Cyber-Terrorism in a Post-Stuxnet World’. Orbis 59(1): 111-128.

    Nojeim, Greg and Orin Kerr. 2012. ‘The Data Question: Third-Party Information’. In Patriots Debate: Contemporary Issues in National Security Law, 2nd ed. eds. H. Rishikof, S. Baker and B. Horowitz. Chicago: American Bar Association.

    Rid, Thomas. 2012. ‘Cyber War Will Not Take Place’. Journal of Strategic Studies 35(1): 5-32.

    The Vision Machine. 2015. Innerview: Ron Deibert. Accessed 30 August 2015. Available at

    Van Cleave, Michelle. 2013. ‘What it takes: in defense of the NSA’. World Affairs 176(4): 57-64.

  2. First of all, this was a great interview. It’s not as common as it ought to be to hear clear, concise explanations of some of the issues that we currently are, and are going to be, facing in our vast new Internet world. The Citizen Lab is a terrific innovation for ‘lifting the lid off the Internet’, and I was interested enough by your work to read the first few chapters (so far) of your book Black Code, which is as accessible as this interview.

    Two points in particular of this interview I found interesting: first, the idea that we are in the early days of the ‘most profound change in all of history, in terms of of how we communicate’. And second, the concept of making ordinary people “hackers”, in order for them to understand the dangers (and potential!) in store for the future of the Internet.

    Computer science is an incredibly large field of study, is highly technical, and can be seen as impenetrable to anyone but specialists. Expressions relating to basic cyber security concepts like “DDoS attack” “Trojan horses” and “worms” (all examples taken from the preface to Black Code) are foreign to most people. Such “incomprehensible” jargon, and your reference to Fukuyama and the danger of making sweeping statements about the period you live in, made me think of a quote from the 1991 film Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. The opening scene is set in a 27th century university, and the inventor of something called the “statiophonic oxygenetic amplifier graphiphonideliverberator” is summoned from the 23rd century to a lecture. The 27th century professor says of the invention, “Kind of hard to imagine the world without them, isn’t it?” To which everyone gives a knowing chuckle. Apart from representing the sense at the time that society was on the cusp of revolutionary technological changes that were incomprehensible to the layperson (evinced by the ridiculously long and complicated name of the device), it represents an attitude, like Fukuyama’s 1989 ‘End of History’ that the coming changes would be long lasting and profound.

    While I think it highly probable that the Internet will exist four centuries from now just like the invention in Bill and Ted, it is impossible to know what form it will take, and the effect that it will have had on society. While nobody argues that the end of the Cold War was not a highly significant event, we laugh at it being hailed as “the end of history”. Like Fukuyama and Bill and Ted, it’s impossible to stand outside the time we’re living in, and to fully comprehend the significance (or otherwise) of the events taking place around us. Will the revelation of mass data surveillance networks be looked back on as a key shifting point on how the Internet is used, slowly creating more conscious and knowledgeable computer users, or will it be forgotten, as Edward Snowden apparently has been by many Americans? For the former to be the case, we need to change the approach towards becoming more engaged in understanding how we use technology, cancelling out John Oliver’s astute statement encompassing the prevalent attitude regarding simple security measures: “it seems hard, even though I know it’s not”.

    By looking at the ruckus that has been caused through the Snowden revelations, the public’s ignorance of, and apathy toward, the information they are leaving on the Internet shows that it is not enough simply to know how to use a computer in order to understand the security dangers and implications of sharing our lives online. This is where I think your statement that we need to encourage ordinary people to be hackers, in the positive sense of the word, is really important. While I definitely agree with your point, I think suggestions such as telling people to read the terms and conditions of what they’re signing off on can seem completely futile. Where using the Internet and particular websites is essential to day-to-day life for most of us, it is easy to argue that there is no point in reading the terms and conditions, because we have no choice but to accept them, even if we hate what they entail. This can be extremely frustrating and disempowering, and I think that this is part of the reason while most people don’t bother reading terms and conditions. This feeling of impotence, as well as apathy, needs to be addressed in a major way if we do want to hold onto the security and privacy of what we put online. This is where education, from the school level, becomes central.

    Although some people take a personal interest or can be inspired by exposure to interviews or articles like this, society at large will never be reached by such methods. In the interests of preserving the integrity of the Internet from hostile actors, learning not only how to interact with computers, but how computers interact, must be as central to the school curriculum as maths and English. However, just as you mention in Black Code that the Internet ‘moves at the speed of electrons, while international law enforcement moves at the speed of bureaucratic institutions’ (p16), so too, it appears, does reform in our educational institutions. As a small anecdotal example, when I was at school, paid after-hours computing classes were offered, and my parents allowed me to go. There, they taught the crowning skill of the computer-savvy: touch-typing. While excited at the prospect of gaining such an enviable skill (which my ten-year-old self never mastered), I was rather disappointed at not actually being taught anything to do with how computers worked. Though I think the days of touch-typing tutorials are mostly passed, from speaking with teacher friends it seems that my experience is still largely representative of the quality of computing being taught in schools today. There need to be robust computing courses in schools taught by people who understand the devices they are using, so that the next generation is made up of users who not only know how to interact with the systems, but understand how the systems interact.

    However, just as it’s not enough to learn how to use computers, but also to learn how they function, so too is this knowledge incomplete without an understanding of the societal and political implications of the technology. I think the dilemma faced by groups such as the Citizen Lab in trying to encourage people to be hackers can be explained by looking at Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message”. Though you touch on this in the preface to Black Code, I don’t think you take the idea far enough. I think we need to look past just how our use of technology influences our behaviour, and look at how it shapes our theorising.

    It is to a great degree impossible to understand issues of computer security without technical knowledge of how the systems work, which is necessarily limited to a small number of people due to the complexity of the systems in question. This means that the average person cannot understand the very nature of the threat – not the philosophical impacts of, say, mass surveillance, but the actual, technical, function of how that information must be collected and stored, and the full combination and limits of uses that information can be put to – because this can only be understood by knowing the reach and limitations of said technology (Randall Munroe put this better than me). This will in turn affect theories of, and discourse on, issues of cyber security and societal/political implications, which will be largely incomplete. This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that most people simply do not understand the extent to which governments or third parties can use their metadata. To compare this to more traditional ideas of security, it is not, for example, necessary to understand the intimate workings of a nuclear missile to be able to discuss the potential uses to which the weapon could be put, and the broader social and political implications of this. The same cannot be said of cyber security, because only experts, who know exactly what information is possessed, can guess at what the information may ultimately be used for, and even then this potential is affected by the imagination of the person/s in possession.

    Thus, the “medium” (the science behind the technologies we use) means that the average user only receives a very limited part of the “message”, i.e., the (understanding of the) manners in which their information can be used. In light of this, your statement that ‘the combination of people turning their digital lives inside out while the state is focussing in on all of society deserves a conversation on the order of a new social contract’ is clearly crucial. However, I think the word ‘conversation’ is too casual and does not convey the urgency of the matter. Individuals’ public and private information is already being used by third parties, perhaps not without their consent, but almost certainly without their knowledge. The imbalance in understandings of technology, compared to the extent to which we use it to share details of our lives, must be redressed in order to manage the threats that we as digital citizens are going to be exposed to in the exciting but dangerous expanding cyberspace universe.

  3. The Vision Machine’s ‘Innerview’ with Ron Deibert, Director of The Citizen Lab and Professor of Political Science at University of Toronto, explores the topics of internet censorship, human rights, hacking, data sweeping and surveillance as well as discusses the inner workings of cyberspace. Furthermore, Deibert delves into Citizen Lab research programs that are conducted and the differences in generational responses to contemporary government surveillance. Finally he illustrates examples of how democratic and authoritarian regimes monitor the internet, while also investigating the term of ‘cyberterrorism’. As these are all themes that hold a great significance in contemporary international relations debates, by working on projects conducting social and political analysis, The Citizen Lab aims to ‘lift the lid’ off the internet and reveal what goes on that is not apparent to the average user.

    In order to properly examine the strength of Deibert’s arguments in this Spotlight, they must be placed alongside existing academic literature. For the purpose of brevity, the ethical debate surrounding Internet surveillance by third-party companies and state governments will be analysed along with the difference in opinion surrounding Internet surveillance and possible solutions to the problem.

    Deibert beings by discussing what makes our hyper technology society different to the ones in the past. Although he doesn’t want to make a grand statement, he does progress to say that he believes, within the last ten years, we have gone through, and are continuing to go through, the most profound changes ever in the way that we communicate. Social media, cloud computing and mobiles in particular are said to be the main drivers that are turning our lives and our communication inside out. As Greenwald (2014: 6) states, today, the Internet is the epicentre of our world, where we develop and express our very personality and sense of self as well as the place in which most of our private data is created and stored. Furthermore, Nojeim and Kerr (2012: 75) mirror this view and highlight the fact that when using the Internet and certain websites, our online lives and interactions create records about our interests, finances, problems, loves and losses as well as even our location on a daily basis. This highly personal information is recorded by third party companies and due to the advancement of technology, law enforcement departments can gather this information easily and secretly (Nojeim & Kerr 2012: 75). Deibert continues by expanding on how these things, as well as the physical structures and machinery of the internet (e.g. Internet exchange points, Internet service providers, cables and satellites etc.) are now vectors through with governments around the world can monitor, shape and exercise power by turning it all into a method of surveillance. Both Deibert and Greenwald (2014: 6) agree that to turn this intricate network of personal data into a system of mass surveillance will be sure to have implications unlike any other previous state surveillance program in history.

    Since 9/11, governments, especially the U.S., claim to use these intrusive metadata monitoring systems for national security purposes – in order to observe and link abnormal patterns of behaviour to criminal activity as well as identify potential terrorist threats or plots which may endanger the greater public (Roth 2013). However, Roth (2013) also notes that officials are yet to identify cases in which megadata surveillance has made a decisive difference. Deibert mirrors this by claiming that no terrorist plot has actually been foiled due to this method of surveillance. Instead, storing this much personal data actually leaves civilians at risk. For example, misidentifications can result in individuals being incorrectly associated with terrorism, fraud or other crime (Isles 2012: 285). Additionally, these somewhat shadowy systems in place, particularly utilised by the NSA or third-party companies in America, pose a huge threat to privacy as documents and records of people can become inadvertently accessible to hackers, which can include individuals and even other governments (Naughton 2016). Furthermore, the constant surveillance is affecting whole social values. It has numbed people’s awareness of their right for privacy, both online and in real life, to the point where expectation of privacy is no longer ‘reasonable’ (Nojeim and Kerr 2012: 76).

    One can already see today that the vast amont of personal information the government holds on people is threatening to the public as there are many holes in the opaque system. However, considering the huge implications this method of surveillance may hold, Deibert claims that many people simply do not care, particularly the younger generations. Additionally, Deibert and Andrejevic (2013: 2) highlight that people are complacent with giving their details away in return for a service and are not aware of the possible repercussions. Deibert believes that there needs to be a specific example of abuse of power for people to realise that it is not just about about one’s ‘privacy’, it is actually about the potential for abuse of power that is left unchecked. Deibert, Galison and Minow (2005: 289) agree that as we are going through this huge transformation of turning our lives digitally outwards, while the world’s security apparatus is turning inwards, there is a need to protect individual privacy from governments and companies having access to, using and storing our metadata and personal information.

    Deibert, along with the above academic works, evidently view data retention and mass surveillance with varying degrees of caution and mistrust. In contrast there are still people who support these kinds of programs and methods.For example, former NSA director Michael Hayden (2014: 23) defends the NSA, claiming that they ‘played by the rules’, then going on to refer to numerous legal Acts and court supervisions supporting their actions. Hayden (2014: 23) victimises and praises the workers within the NSA community as patriots and heroes against transnational terrorism. The victimisation as well as explicit reference to the fact that Edward Snowden has unveiled a plethora of risks directly threatening national security, is further argued by Mike Rogers, a previous Chairman of U.S. House Intelligence. He claims that this data retention protects privacy and is valuable intelligence that has saved thousands of lives, not just in the United States but also in France, Germany and throughout Europe (Viswanatha & Yukhananov 2013).

    After this brief analysis of academic literature, one can see that the ethics behind mass surveillance are highly contested on a local and international level. However, Deibert’s arguments, alongside those of Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald clearly sit on the side of individual privacy and protection. In light of an overwhelming amount of existing literature, there is little counter-evidence against Deibert’s arguments which are completely valid and should be brought to the forefront of today’s international relations discussions. Furthermore, Isles (2012: 287) and Deibert push that due to this huge shifting paradigm, there has been a lack of reflection on the laws (domestic and international) touching on personal data collection, thus new social contracts on cybersecurity, privacy and megadata mining must be re-examined and re-written between the people and their governments. For example, Deibert points out that democratic countries need more overseeing institutions involved in the process of data retention. Galison and Minow (2005: 260-261) also state that new technology can be designed and implemented into these institutions to establish filters to guard access to data, restrict access to private information and improve market strategies and education on the topic. Lyon (2015: 150) notes that the public’s indifference to the heavy-going topic of megadata surveillance lays in the fact that this very intense subject requires certain complicated vocabulary, making it harder for some people to fathom. Thus, a reassessment in the way that these types of conversations are carried out by the media and the government is called upon by Lyon (2015: 150).

    Overall, I found this Spotlight extremely interesting, informative and well put together. One aspect that could be improved on is having another scholar, politician or IT professional involved to discuss the topic and potentially even give an alternative perspective or opposing opinions on the issue. Fundamentally, this Spotlight highlighted the fact that in our contemporary world, all of society needs to rethink what it means to allow this highly detailed, revealing and personal information to be put in the hands of the private sector as well as redefine under what conditions the state should have access to it, as this type of power remains at risk to be abused.

    Reference List:

    Andrejevic, Mark. 2013. Infoglut: How Too Much Information Is Changing the Way We Think and Know. New York: Routledge.

    Galison, Peter and Martha Minow. 2005. ‘Our Privacy, Ourselves in an Age of Technological Intrusions’. In Human Rights in the “War on Terror”, ed. R. Ashby Wilson. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Greenwald, Glenn. 2014. No Place to Hide. London: Penguin.

    Hayden, Michael. 2014. ‘Beyond Snowden: An NSA Reality Check’. World Affairs 176(5): 13-23.

    Isles, Adam. 2012. ‘Data Mining: A Primer’. In National Security Law in the News: A Guide for Journalists, Scholars and Policymakers, eds. P. Rosenzweig, T. McNulty and E. Shearer. Chicago: American Bar Association.

    Lyon, David. 2015. ‘The Snowden Stakes: Challenges for Understanding Surveillance Today’. Surveillance & Society13(2): 139-152.

    Nojeim, Greg and Orin Kerr. 2012. ‘The Data Question: Third-Party Information’. In Patriots Debate: Contemporary Issues in National Security Law, 2nd ed. eds. H. Rishikof, S. Baker and B. Horowitz. Chicago: American Bar Association.

    Naughton, John. 2016. The NSA’s Stash of Digital Holes is a Threat to Everyone Online. Accessed 5 October 2016. Available at

    Roth, Kenneth. 2013. Rethinking Surveillance. Accessed 30 September 2016. Available at

    The Vision Machine. 2015. Innerview: Ron Deibert. Accessed 30 September 2016. Available at

    Viswanatha, Aruna and Anna Yukhananov. 2013. Mike Rogers Defends NSA Surveillance, Says Public Information Is Misguided. Accessed 5 October 2016. Available at

  4. Choice of Essay – Critical Review Blog on Spotlight Feature – POLS3512


    by Ruby Wilson-Tucker

    This critical review is on the spotlight ‘Innerview’ of Ron Deibert conducted by Sebastian Kaempf and Roger Stahl. Professor Deibert is a renowned Political Science academic and Director of Citizen Lab ‘an interdisciplinary research and development laboratory’ that aspires to ‘lift the lid off the internet’ (Deibert, 2016). The ‘innerview’ focuses on exceptionally topical issues such as mass surveillance, cyberwar, cyberterrorism and human rights that are rapidly surfacing out of contemporary global security and political debates. Due to the extensive range of topics covered, Deibert’s narratives at times, although concise and comprehensible, were limited in delving into the full complexity of the issues. However, overall it was undeniably an effective presentation of dense topics. For the sake of brevity, this review will focus solely on the concepts of mass surveillance and privacy in order to evaluate Deibert’s position by placing them within the context of relevant literature.

    Ron Deibert’s engaging and accessible discourse provided an enlightening perspective on human rights in relation to issues of mass surveillance and privacy. Furthermore, Deibert’s conceptions were supplemented with inquisitive questions posed by Sebastian Kaempf that effectively guided the course of the interview. It was interesting to note that the first part of the ‘innerview’ familiarised the viewer with ‘Citizen Lab’ in order to humanise the type of work his team is doing. Whilst each topic flowed seamlessly to the next, there was a clear demarcation between each concept, that consequently created a strong and cohesive narrative, effectively reinforcing the central message of the ‘Spotlight.’

    Emerging from the overarching themes of surveillance and control by state and non-state actors, I felt that the central message of the ‘innerview’ focused on not only enlightening people on the injustices and violations of human rights that have occurred due to rapidly improving technologies, but additionally it highlighted methods to recognise these injustices taking place and most importantly how we can adapt and survive within this changing media environment. Therefore, the combination of informing and advising created an insightful and comprehensive interview that demonstrated Deibert’s academic perspectives and discoveries derived from the ‘Citizen Lab.’

    In order to critically evaluate the content of Deibert’s ‘innerview’, I will analyse two key concepts covered; mass surveillance and accountability in regards to privacy to critique Deibert’s credibility within contemporary literary debates.

    Deibert initiates the interview by describing how the introduction of the internet and creation of a ‘cyberspace’ have undeniably influenced communications technology. Subsequently, he argues for the significance of the Snowden revelations in demonstrating the importance of considering the physical structure beneath cyberspace as it provides the ‘vectors through which power is exercised by organisations that can shape communication and monitor in ways that allow leverage of that information.’ This sentiment is reflected in literature, where multiple authors argue that the paradigm shift in security post-9/11 was highly significant since it influenced states and intelligence agencies to pursue mass surveillance programmes. This consequently has led to over-reliance on ‘pre-empting and controlling security risks’ (Bakir, 2015:13), effectively normalising the need to achieve ‘total information awareness’ (Andrejevic and Gates, 2014:192). The Snowden revelations have created a space for society to express concerns about the state ‘pushing legal interpretation to the limits in the quest for security’ (Bakir, 2015:13). Deibert is also clearly concerned with the proliferation of states indiscriminately applying surveillance and censorship technologies. To support his point, he illustrates the severity of regulatory blocking systems implemented in China and the deep packet inspection system in Iran. However, the strength of Deibert’s central message was most apparent and convincing when he encouraged the audience to become more aware of the dangers and violations of human rights by the state.

    Literature on mass surveillance reveals that there is an active and complex debate on the ‘relationship between security interests and the individual rights to data privacy’ (Zalnieriute, 2015:100). Deibert’s position aligned with those that criticised data retention and surveillance, and was undoubtedly more convincing. The opposing debate claims that by gathering more data it enables states to develop effective predictive-analytic capacities, and furthermore, ‘if you have done nothing wrong, there is nothing to fear.’ However, the reassurance of security through pre-emptive measures in the face of ubiquitous and unknown risks is viewed as indispensable mainly by state and government actors (Maras, 2010:24). It is clear that this narrative carries strong bias within academic literature because the strongest voice comes from the state, government and intelligence agencies to provide political justification for the apparent absolute necessity of mass surveillance for sustaining an uninterrupted civil society (Maras, 2010:23; Aloudat, 2012:52). This severely limits the validity of the counter-evidence, and demonstrated that Deibert’s argument remained overwhelmingly more convincing since he deviated from the normalised security narrative. A range of literature supported his position and indicated the illegitimacy of data retention initiatives that treat the entire population as potential suspects, which raises fundamental privacy issues over the power the state has over the citizen (Clarke, 2015:13; Andrejevic and Gates, 2014:187). As society progressively perceives these measures as a move ‘towards blanket and intrusive policing of our lives’ (Aloudat, 2012:54), the creation of a cybernetic system has become detrimental to the concept of democracy as it perpetuates ‘classic symptoms of advanced paranoia: hyper-vigilance and intense distrust (Der Derian, 1990:305). The issue arises when these surveillance measures move from being in response to the political climate of the ‘war on terror’ to normalising securitisation of society as a whole (Aloudat, 2012:53). Additionally, the knowledge that constant tracking technologies are utilised by governments on normal daily life activities in ways that unnecessarily violate basic human rights of privacy strengthened the validity of Deibert’s central message of concern (Aloudat, 2012:53).

    Despite the validity of Deibert’s central message in regards to literature on the overall security vs. privacy debate above, when looking more closely at privacy and the individual, it contradicted evidence found within literature, consequently delivering a less convincing understanding of the issue. Deibert extensively focused on how the individual was voluntarily turning their lives inside out on social media without acknowledgement of the implications. He expressed defeat towards individuals complaining about these issues, stating that when we implicitly accept terms and conditions, we are consequently ‘signing off our rights.’ This highlights issues of accountability in an era when ‘we are turning our lives inside out, whilst the state’s security apparatus is turning inwards on society.’ He reinforces that it’s not about privacy but the potential abuse of power. Contrary to Deibert’s focus on the individuals’ accountability, it is clear that the literature placed more emphasis on the particularities of privacy and the importance of safeguarding privacy rights against exploitation by the state and the right to having control over personal information regardless of the situation (Zalnieriute,2015; Tomescu, 2010; Parsons, 2015; Cohen, 2010; Maras, 2012; Ford,2011; Joyce,2015). For example, Zalnieriute (2015:100) states that privacy is an ‘individual right’ that protects the individual from ‘unjustified interference with their private lives,’ and stresses the need for enhanced accounts of privacy that ‘appreciate the normative issues raised by ubiquitous surveillance’ (Stahl, 2016:34). There are different forms of information an individual is comfortable with sharing, but it is undeniable that location information from metadata can have ‘serious consequences on an individual’s privacy if misused.’ This is because often the ‘citizen may never know the extent of tracking or the breadth of information that is collected and passed onto the government (Aloudat, 2012:55). Additionally, the notion of consent is compromised when ‘one cannot give meaningful consent to an unknown use of data downstream in the process (Zwart, Humphreys, Dissel, 2014:739). This decreases Deibert’s credibility in placing the accountability on the individual when this issue goes beyond the information voluntarily shared on social media to pervasive monitoring and retention of metadata. Although Internet users are often ‘conscious of the amount and type of personal information they divulge online,’ and deliberately share incorrect or incomplete information to protect their privacy (Beldad, Jong, Steehouder, 2011:230) placing the accountability in the actions of the government and security paradigm demonstrated through the literature is a more convincing argument in this context, consequently conveying Deibert’s message as questionable and limited.

    In conclusion, this was an informative, cohesive and well executed interview. An improvement would be involving additional perspectives from other professionals or scholars. Furthermore, since the topics covered were fairly complex, the Spotlight could have benefited from lengthier sections dedicated to particular issues. Nevertheless, this interview effectively linked the issues of privacy and the increase of mass surveillance to the deeper structural cause of the security paradigm that has normalised these social constructs post 9/11. Deibert consistently conveyed a convincing criticism and concern of the direction mass surveillance has taken which was reinforced with a review of contemporary literature. Deibert provided several profound reflections of how individuals must reconsider the consequences of personal data in a society where the state has access, control and capabilities to abuse the power of information.

    Andrejevic, M. and Gates, K. (2014). Big Data Surveillance: Introduction. Surveillance and Society, 12(2), pp.185-196.

    Aloudat, A. (2012). Privacy vs. Security in National Emergencies. IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, 31(1), pp.50-55.

    Bakir, V. (2015). “Veillant Panoptic Assemblage”: Mutual Watching and Resistance to Mass Surveillance after Snowden. Media and Communication, 3(3), p.12.

    Beldad, A., de Jong, M. and Steehouder, M. (2011). A Comprehensive Theoretical Framework for Personal Information-Related Behaviors on the Internet. The Information Society, 27(4), pp.220-232.

    Clarke, R. (2015). Data retention as mass surveillance: the need for an evaluative framework. International Data Privacy Law, 5(121-132).

    Cohen, J. (2010). The Inverse Relationship between Secrecy and Privacy. Social Research, [online] 77(3), pp.883-898. Available at: [Accessed 28 Oct. 2016].

    Deibert, R. (2016). Bio | RONALD DEIBERT. [online] Available at: [Accessed 28 Oct. 2016].

    der Derian, J. (1990). The (S)pace of International Relations: Simulation, Surveillance, and Speed. International Studies Quarterly, 34(3), p.295.

    Ford, S. (2011). RECONCEPTUALIZING THE PUBLIC/PRIVATE DISTINCTION IN THE AGE OF INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY. Information, Communication & Society, 14(4), pp.550-567.

    Joyce, D. (2015). Privacy in the Digital Era: Human Rights Online?. Melbourne Journal of International Law, 16(1), pp.270-285.

    Maras, M. (2010). How to Catch a Terrorist: Is Mass Surveillance the Answer?. Journal of Applied Security Research, 5(1), pp.20-41.

    Maras, M. (2012). The social consequences of a mass surveillance measure: What happens when we become the ‘others’?. International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice, 40(2), pp.65-81.

    Parsons, C. (2015). Beyond Privacy: Articulating the Broader Harms of Pervasive Mass Surveillance. Media and Communication, 3(3), p.1.

    Stahl, T. (2016). Indiscriminate mass surveillance and the public sphere. Ethics and Information Technology, 18(1), pp.33-39.

    Tomescu, M. (2010). Identity, Security and Privacy in the information society. Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice, 2(2), pp.307-312.

    Zalnieriute, M. (2015). An international constitutional moment for data privacy in the times of mass-surveillance. International Journal of Law and Information Technology, 23(2), pp.99-133.

    Zwart, M., Humphreys, S. and Van Dissel, B. (2014). Surveillance, Big Data and Democracy: Lessons for Australia from the US and UK. UNSW Law Journal, 37(2), pp.713-747.

  5. POLS3512 Entry

    These past few weeks doing the POLS3512 course have been a very interesting experience for me. As I remember, what sparked my interest was when we were shown a snippet from an interview with Edward Snowden. To be honest, I did not know who this man was, and what he did, until that day in class, when we were learning about big data mining. In this spotlight interview with Professor Ron Deibert, he explained a lot about our new technology, communication, and data sharing. What this spotlight is trying to tell us is that change is happening every day, progressively, and very rapidly especially with the technology that we have now. And it is very striking how so much have changed in the span of only ten years. Professor Deibert talked about how, many of the information that we used to keep in tangible files or in our memories, we now keep in online storage services, like cloud. We even share information and details through social media, the same way we would write journal entries. The only difference is that our journal entries are for ours to read alone, unless we personally give consent to another, while in social media, everyone can view what we posted. And what we often fail to realise is that even when we set up the settings on private, as long as it is online, the possibilities of that information getting on some other people’s hands, is very likely. It is quite concerning, if we think about it, but the problem is, we often don’t put much thought before putting anything online (Custers, van der Hof and Schermer 2014).

    Every day, we send out emails, chat with friends and family online, post events online while it is happening and where it is happening. It has become part of our daily lives, that we don’t put much thought about it. We don’t put much thought about third parties having access to those data, and that we are actually indirectly giving consent to this. Professor Deibert mentioned that everything has third parties involved now, and most of these third parties are private companies that may be well out of the state we are currently in. The cyberspace has a very complex nature. What we see on the outside is that it keeps people connected and informed. It makes time and distance shorter because information travels fast through cyberspace. What we don’t usually look at is what is in the cyberspace, what and who keeps it functioning, and what and has access to it. It constitutes of machineries, service provider, exchange points and satellites, and people. The cyberspace, according to Professor Deibert, “is a vector through which power is exercised”. What this means is that, whoever has access to the infrastructure has the power to control what information goes in and out in to the world. Some of those gathered data are even used for strategic advantage. The United States, as Professor Deibert mentioned, is a good example, maybe even the best, for using that capability, especially with billions of dollars in budget. It is not necessarily a person or a group of persons controlling the flow of information. Fundamentally, commands are built in to block or allow access to content, and distribute it. What I found that is very concerning is that, the data being gathered is not selective. Anyone’s information can be readily accessed by those who have the authority, or those who know their way around. Basically, anyone or everyone could be under surveillance, whether we consent to it or not (Taekke 2011).

    We may not be able to confirm who are watching us – it could be the good guys; it could be the bad guys – or if we really are being watched at all in our part of the globe. But with the advancements in our technology to this day, can we confidently say that we are not? Again, as Professor Deibert would say, we live in dangerous times. Professor Deibert is not the first person to openly say that governments and private companies may have access to even our most private details. Edward Snowden exposed in 2013 the truth about the US government’s surveillance. The surveillance did not only apply to the citizens of the United States, but also to several other states that they deemed were a threat to their nation’s security. Since the attacks in 9/11, the United States’ war on terror went up to their priority list, and used the hyper technology that they have to track down the terrorists, from their roots (Bakir 2010). The means was practical, given that they already had the resources and the personnel, and the intentions were clearly for the good of all, at that time. Until they started to harvest data about random people, even those who are innocent of any crime, without consent. Another point that Professor Deibert talked about in this interview is that, it is not so much about whether you have access to internet or not anymore, they can access your information with just the gadget you are using. Another issue is the terms and conditions that we need to agree to in order for us to access information or services that we need. We are asked this very often that we don’t even take the time to read those terms and conditions anymore, and we just tick the box, giving them consent to use whatever information we set on “public”. But these terms and conditions, privacy policies can vary from one application or social network, to another, nonetheless we tick those boxes and agree without reading. However, we are not fully to be blamed for exposing ourselves because, as I mentioned earlier, there are information and services that we can access only if we agree to their terms and conditions (Such and Rovatsos 2016).

    Lastly, the mention that the “primary threat to digital arms control is the government itself, and not the non-state actors”. In my opinion, this is the most concerning part of this whole digitalised time. The government often pose more threat than provide security for their people. We can only imagine what could possibly happen if those data that have been collected by the government would end up in wrong hands, the opposition or worst, the terrorist groups. This interview with Professor Deibert sheds light to matters we think are not bad enough to be concerned about. And even though technology have in fact made everyday living more comfortable for many of us, it came with a great price, the price of exposing of our identities to actors we don’t know, and breaching our privacy, and possibly endangering our safety (Martin and Rabina 2009).


    Bakir, Vian. 2010. ‘Sousveillance and Strategic Political Communication: Developments and Implications’. In Sousveillance, Media and Strategic Political Communication. Bloomsbury Publishing.

    Custers, Bart, Simone van der Hof and Bart Schermer. 2014. ‘Privacy Expectations of Social Media Users: The Role of Informed Consent in Privacy Policies’. Policy & Internet 6(3):268-295.

    Martin, Shannon, Debbie Rabina. 2009. ‘National security, individual privacy and public access to government-held information: the need for changing perspectives in a global environment’. Information & Communications Technology Law 18(1):13-18.

    Such, Jose M, Michael Rovatsos. 2016. ‘Privacy Policy Negotiation in Social Media’. ACM Transactions on Autonomous and Adaptive Systems 11(1):1-29.

    Taekke, Jesper. 2011. ‘Digital Panopticism and Organisational Power’. Surveillance and Society 8(4):441-454.

  6. POLS3512

    In the interview, Ron Deibert (The Vision Machine 2015) discusses with interviewer Sebastian Kaempf the implications of today’s world of big data and what role Deibert’s interdisciplinary laboratory, the Citizen Lab, plays in understanding this world. Deibert elaborates on the evolution of technology to our current age and what it means for us, using his own knowledge of how the internet actually functions in a more technical sense, as well as what this means for both democratic and authoritarian states and the norms around privacy and freedom. With reference to a range of academic literature, and paired with an understanding of the complicated world of digital media and new technologies gathered from Kaempf own lectures, I will critically review the claims made by Deibert during his interview.

    While there were many subtopics covered in the interview (The Vision Machine 2015), I will focus on two overarching topics covered by Deibert. These are firstly Deibert’s explanation of the breadth of information gathered by today’s modern devices, and the transparency of the use of this information. Secondly, what he believes is the best approach is to ensure that we can continue to enjoy the benefits of such incredible technological advancements, while avoiding catastrophic abuses of institutional power.

    What is most significant about today’s digital landscape is not simply the speed at which technology has grown or the advancements made, but rather the sheer amount of data that is created, documented and stored everyday (see Davis, McGarrity and Williams 2014; Deibert 2013; DiMaggio et al. 2001; The Vision Machine 2015). Deibert calls this a ‘digital exhaust’ that we leave behind us through our use of technology now considered ‘everyday’, such as mobile phones, iPad’s, computers and the communication platforms we use through them (The Vision Machine 2015).

    The most notorious case to highlight the surge in data collection raised by Deibert and supported by numerous sources including the aforementioned authors is the Snowden revelations around data collection being carried out by the United States (US) National Security Agency (NSA) (Murakami Wood and Wright 2015; Young 2017). Furthering this insight into the way today’s digital landscape is unlike any seen before, Deibert (The Vision Machine 2015) elaborates on the way in which such vast amounts of data are collected. Today’s digital world is one in which everything we use contributes to the every growing collection of information on us and those around us, something which Sarah Young (2015: 125) calls surveillance assemblages; central points of collection for surveillance data that is drawn from a wide range of sources.

    Deibert, on the other hand, suggests that the increasingly willingness and thoughtlessness with which people share or place information online, which previously would have been stored “in someone’s mind” or “written in a book”, leaves people vulnerable to state and military surveillance that is increasingly looking inward at individual citizens (The Vision Machine 2015). Importantly, Young (2015) supports this example; further arguing that the way data is used today is beyond even the Panopticon or Big Brother institutions imagined by Bentham and Orwell. While some authors have said that we live in an era where the surveillance is “mutually assured” (Franklin, 2015 cited in Monshipouri 2017: 123), Deibert (The Vision Machine 2015) reiterates throughout the interview that he believes people are not as aware of the scale of data collection as they should be, something that is supported by the reactions to the Snowden revelations (Macaskill and Dance 2013).

    One contrasting side to the arguments made by Deibert can be demonstrated by the work of Andrea Renda (2012) and Bernard Marr (2016). Renda (2012: 24) presents a positive economic argument supporting data collection, and argues big data means environmental improvements over traditional data storage methods (Renda 2012: 25). The main issue that I take with this argument is that privacy is something that does not seem to have been considered (2012: 42). Where privacy is mentioned, Renda discusses it in relation to how it may affect the success of cloud computing, and does not reflect on broader consequences of a degradation of privacy in the digital age (2012: 34-35).

    That said, Renda (2012: 34) does highlight privacy issues in one segment of the work, looking into the muddying of legal frameworks that occurs as a result of third party providers and private companies that are outside the territorial jurisdiction of the country in which they operate. This does not mean that the positives should be discredited, but certainly the issues of fundamental rights, privacy, and the ability to prevent abuses of power must also be considered.

    Similarly, Marr (2016) acknowledges the large scale of data collection in the modern world, but concentrates only on the positive business aspects that this information could provide. Again, I believe the issue of privacy and human rights that Deibert’s interview (The Vision Machine 2015) addresses are things that these two authors must consider before their arguments can be given more weight.

    For this reason I believe the concerns around privacy and human rights raised in Deibert’s interview (The Vision Machine 2015) are of more concern than the benefits listed by Renda and Marr are of comfort. On the other hand, Deibert’s assertion that what is needed is privacy by design in the technological age is supported by information presented by Renda on the public shift towards supporting such an approach (2012: 35).

    Furthermore, the majority of the research I have done lends support to Deibert’s (The Vision Machine 2015) concern about these issues and whether or not the protections currently in place are capable of addressing them. In ‘Surveillance, Counter-Terrorism and Comparative Constitutionalism’ (Davis, Mcgarrity and Williams 2014) the authors write that not only is privacy “dead”, but the current laws in place to address issues regarding privacy do not completely relate to the new ways in which it is being violated. This clearly supports Deibert’s (The Vision Machine 2015) claims that privacy and human rights are the key matters at stake in the new digital age.

    Similarly, in ‘Get off my cloud’ (2012), Droege argues that International Humanitarian law, drafted with old war techniques in mind, is also lacking when it comes to addressing cyber warfare. This article was interesting as it expanded on Deibert’s (The Vision Machine 2015) explanation of the way the Internet system works with a legal perspective. Deibert (The Vision Machine 2015) explains that states or private companies alike can and do intercept information or alter the flow of information from various so-called ‘choke points’, while Droege (2012) argues that the way in which the current legal framework is set up cannot possibly protect against the flaws in the way that this system works.

    Another more in-depth look at the interplay of the individual versus societal application of rights, norms, and privacy can be seen in James Willis and Susan Silbey’s article, ‘Self, surveillance, and society’ (2002). I found all these articles interesting as they provided a more in-depth analysis of the various issues that need to be considered should we hope to address the potential problems of the digital world and big data. The explanation Deibert (The Vision Machine 2015) gave for this shift in surveillance and the way data is collected and used is that it arises from a “combination of individuals turning their lives inside-out, while the state is focusing in on all of society”.

    This transformation in the digital world and the way we communicate to produce data from almost everything and anything in our daily lives is the key focus of Deibert’s engaging interview with The Vision Machine’s Sebastian Kaempf (2015). Furthermore, Deibert’s (The Vision Machine 2015) claim that the problems as resulting from this transformation and the deficiencies of current frameworks in dealing with such a new phenomenon is something that I have demonstrated to be supported by several authors in the field.

    In summary, the authors discussed have shown that while there are economic advantages to be taken from the use of big data, Deibert’s (The Vision Machine 2015) concern for human rights and privacy is not misplaced. It is evident that while there are different perspectives on the role of big data, Deibert’s (The Vision Machine 2015) arguments are well founded and supported, and I believe he provides informed insight into the world of big data.


    Davis, Fergal, Mcgarrity, Nicola and Williams, George. 2014. Surveillance, Counter-Terrorism and Comparative Constitutionalism. New York: Routledge.

    Deibert, Robert. 2013. Black code: inside the battle for cyberspace. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.
    DiMaggio, Paul, Hargittai, Eszter, Neuman, W. Russell, and Robinson, John P. 2001. ‘Social implications of the internet’. Annual Review of Sociology 1:307- 336.

    Droege, Cordula. 2012. ‘Get off my cloud: cyber warfare, international humanitarian law, and the protection of civilians’. International review of the Red Cross 94(886):533-578.

    Macaskill, Ewen and Dance, Gabriel. 2013. ‘NSA Files: Decoded’. The Guardian 1 November.

    Marr, Bernard. (2016). Big Data in Practice How 45 successful companies used big data analytics to deliver extraordinary results. Cornwall: Wiley.

    Monshipouri, Mahmood. 2017. ‘Human Rights in the Digital Age: Opportunities and Constraints’. Public Integrity 19(2):123-135.

    Murakami Wood, David. and Steve. Wright. 2015. ‘Before and After Snowden’. Surveillance & Society 13(2):132-138.

    Musolesi, Mirco. 2014. ‘Big Mobile Data Mining: Good or Evil?’. IEEE Internet Computing 18(1):78-81.

    Renda, Andrea. 2012. ‘Competition, neutrality and diversity in the cloud’. Communications & Strategies 85:23-44.

    The Vision Machine. 2015. Innerview: Ron Deibert. Accessed 30 August 2015. Available at

    Willis, James and Silbey, Susan. 2002. ‘Self, surveillance, and society’. Sociological Quarterly 43(3):439-445.

    Young, Sarah. 2017. ‘Slipping Through the Cracks: Background Investigations after Snowden’. Surveillance & Society 15(1):123-136.

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