Friday, May 5, 2017

Book Review: Little Brother

Cory Doctorow
Awards: Campbell
Nominations: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –


Little Brother is a story about hackers. But it is not a cyberpunk novel. It is about innocent humans targeted by a repressive police state, fighting for their civil rights, their freedom, and sometimes their lives.

Yes, the main character, Marcus Yallow, has a wry, cocky, hacker-appropriate attitude. And, yes, he does lots of hacking, in which he uses real hacker techniques to burrow into the tightest security systems, and the techniques don’t come off as cheesy as they so often do in works of fiction. But Marcus’ unwarranted arrest, and the way U.S. government officers treat him while he is in their custody, and the way he is mercilessly hounded even after he is set “free,” are far from the world of cocky hacking, and very scary.

Marcus is a seventeen-year-old high school student living in San Francisco. He is irreverent and smart, mainly using his hacking skills for fun.

One day, Marcus and his friends cut class, as they often do, to join a live-action adventure game. Unfortunately, they happen to be out on the street with no legitimate excuse and a bunch of suspect-looking technology when terrorists attack the city. The group of friends are swept up in the Homeland Security crackdown that follows and are thrown into a secret prison, given no food or bathroom, hog-tied with zip cuffs, and interrogated with all the force the DHS has to muster.

When Marcus at first refuses to unlock his phone they accuse him of being a terrorist, torture him, and then leave him soaking in his own urine for hours. Eventually, he cracks—as the vast majority of us would—and agrees to give them all his passwords if they will just let him go home. They let him go, but they stay on his tail, threatening to bring him in again for good if he strays off the path of correct behavior.

Their degrading, dehumanizing treatment terrorizes and cows Marcus, and that fear stays with him. But gradually his fighting spirit comes back, too. His outrage grows as the security crackdown gets harsher and DHS surveillance gets more widespread and insidious. And, as time passes, one of his friends still is not released by DHS, and may be, for all he knows, dead.

Marcus decides he has to bring down the people who tortured him and his friends. He discovers that DHS has (clumsily) bugged his laptop, so he hacks his internet-enabled Xbox and turns it into a secure communication device, and spreads the Xbox crack code to his friends, eventually turning the Bay Area into a network of under-20-something hackers and gamers called “the Xnet” that are ready to help tear down the repressive regime with him: a scattered, disorganized, and passionate virtual army.

When the police and DHS become aware of the Xnet, they use it as an excuse to increase their strategy of harassment and surveillance. They send spy vans and helicopters roaming throughout the city, looking for Xbox signals; they track every person’s movements around the city through the RFID chips in their Muni and toll passes; and they install facial recognition cameras everywhere. Whenever someone is determined to have an “unusual” pattern of movement, they are questioned and intimidated.

In spite of all of this, the vast majority of the adult population are okay with having every one of their movementsonline and offtracked, recorded, and analyzed by authorities. This is one of the most frustrating and realistic parts of the book. Yes, it is inconvenient and can be annoying, they say, but it is all to keep us safe. If you aren’t doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.

And the mainstream media does nothing to change that opinion, reporting on everything with a security bias—so, for example, a concert where a bunch of kids are beaten and gassed by police is reported as a “riot” started by the concert-goers. Even Marcus’ parents are convinced that these measures are there for a good reason, even as kids (and, increasingly, sympathetic adults) get pepper-sprayed, arrested, and subjected to “questioning” (a.k.a. torture, including waterboarding).

Ironically, the actual terrorists continue to escape justice, while more and more innocent people are bullied and jailed. Thousands of people are swept up in this security farce as DHS tactics grow more intense. And Marcus and his legions of Xnetters engage in steadily more confrontational hacks and actions—with varying amounts of success—until Marcus is finally face to face with his torturers once again.

Technically, Little Brother has a happy ending. But it also makes it clear that any victory for justice is always a temporary one, and that the defense of civil rights is a constant fight. The authoritarian forces that would ask us to give up our liberty in the name of security are always there, waiting for the least crack in our will to creep back in. Marcus and the hackers and the lawyers and the teachers and the reporters must remain ever vigilant to make sure it never happens again.

Part of the reason this book works so well is that Marcus’s hacker techniques are all completely authentic. The social engineering methods to discover passwords; the conduct of ultra-secure conversations by tunneling through DNS; the “borrowing” of RFID chip signatures from innocent bystanders nearby—all of those are real. And even though these techniques can be complicated, Doctorow explains them clearly and understandably without being superior or silly. He’s clearly someone who knows what he’s talking about (a fact backed up by the fact that he has hackers and security experts writing his afterwords).

Doctorow and his afterword writers also explain why hacking is necessary, and actively encourage his readers to think about how to hack things. For one thing, it’s fun. For another, it’s educational; you learn how things work. And for another, when you publicly expose security flaws, you make people have to tighten up their security, making security stronger. There’s no way to make systems as secure as they can be without testing their limits.

The other, more important reason that Little Brother is powerful (and anxiety-producing) is because it is set in a surveillance state that is very much real life. Doctorow wrote this book at the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, when that administration was actively demolishing civil rights in the name of protecting us from terrorists, and doing it with the unquestioning support of most of the populace and mainstream media. It was very relevant then, and is, unfortunately, even more relevant now.

It’s a dangerous book, too, because Doctorow calls into question all the things we have had to adjust to following the formation of the DHS: increased x-ray screenings, ID checks, taking your shoes off at the airport. All of which, he says, are actually pointless in actually preventing anything from happening. These tactics are less about actually catching criminals and more about keeping a population intimidated and fearful so that they can be more easily manipulated.

The main question this book raises is, I think, one of the most important of our time: when you are faced with an unjust, militaristic, authoritarian regime, how do you respond? Do you keep your head down, trying to keep yourself and your family safe, and hope it gets better on its own? Or do you fight back, risking your liberty and possibly your life?

It’s critical to think about this now that the U.S. is faced with the most schizophrenic, authoritarian regime I’ve seen in my lifetime. I know what I’d like to think I would do. But I don’t honestly know how far I’d be willing to go if my life was at stake.

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