Sunday, December 14, 2008

Review: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Finally, a novel about the not-too-distant-future that rings frighteningly true! So many stories that take our current attitudes to their "logical" conclusion, really seem to focus on only one small part of our attitudes, ignoring how other parts of our national psyche might affect each other (I'm looking at you, Rash). In Little Brother, Cory Doctorow doesn't take our ideas about security to their logical conclusion, but rather to the logical next step, examining what happens in the aftermath of the next big terrorist attack in the United States.

Marcus is a 17 year old hacker living in the Bay Area of California. He's not one of those evil hackers one hears about, sending out viruses and stealing sensitive information; rather he hacks in order to make his overly-observed life more bearable. He hacks the school computers so he can IM during class, he knows how to disable tracking software in library books, and can avoid detection by the gait sensing software used by the school (it's charmingly low tech: put gravel in your shoe and you're untraceable by this "high tech" security).

Marcus has just used his hacking skills to break himself and his best friend, Darryl, out of school in order to participate in their favorite Alternate Reality Game with two of their friends Jolu and Van, students at other local schools, when the ground begins to slip out from under them like an earthquake, and air raid sirens begin to sound. In their panic to find safety, Darryl is injured, and Marcus steps out in front of the next vehicle he sees in order to get someone to stop and help his friend. "Help," however, is now in the guise of the Department of Homeland Security, who now view Marcus and his friends as potential enemy combatants and suspects in the bombing of the Bay Bridge.

After days of detainment and interrogation, Marcus, Jolu and Van are released into a new world with new security everywhere: video cameras are at the front of classrooms, passes for the subway and toll booths have RFID tags that are traced constantly (even when the user isn't near a subway or toll booth) to detect suspicious movements, and even Marcus' personal laptop has been bugged with a keylogger to track his every digital movement. So Marcus begins his own personal crusade to evade the all seeing eyes of the DHS. It starts by hacking an Xbox to run Linux, but grows to jamming the RFID chips, fighting with his parents, gaining a better understanding of the bill of rights and hippies, and finding an awesome girlfriend (who is all the more awesome because her name is Ange).

The book got a little talky at times, with paragraphs, or even pages, dedicated to explaining everything from the yippies to LARPing (note to Marcus: people who play in the basement are infinitely cooler than LARPers ;-) Though I agree people who are painting miniatures take nerdiness to a new level. I say this with all the love in the world, people!). However, a lot of the technical explanation was necessary - all of the technology Marcus experiences and hacks is readily available (and used) today, but unfortunately too many people don't understand what it means (or could mean) to have a Radio Frequency Identification tag broadcasting you whereabouts to anyone who inquires. Rarely does the exposition stop the action, however, and overall I felt it added a lot of credibility to the book. Additionally there are two afterwards to the book that added to the credibility: one from a security technologist and another from Andrew "bunnie" Huang, the first to hack the original Xbox, and on top of that a bibliography that covers practically every topic brought up in the book for further reading.

Ultimately this book works because it's not hard to imagine ending up here. Various organizations are constantly fighting to add more surveillance/security equipment into public places in order to protect us. But are we actually any safer for it? When cameras are placed in the front of classrooms, Marcus openly asks how on earth that is going to protect the students from terrorists - if a terrorist came in with a bomb, the camera certainly wasn't going to stop him.

I absolutely loved Marcus' interactions with his parents following his return home from his interrogation. After being threatened by the DHS if he tells anyone where he was for five days, Marcus concocts a story about his friends and himself being trapped while out camping - an experience many people did have. His father, meanwhile, is a different person upon Marcus' return. He had spent five days convinced his son was dead, perhaps buried at the bottom for the bay under the rubble of the bombed bridge. He seems to be pretty okay with the increased surveillance - even after he is stopped twice on the way home from work one day to be questioned by police about his movements. He truly believes that if the security will prevent another attack, if the security will keep his son safe, then his privacy is a small price to pay. Marcus, obviously, feels completely differently and makes impassioned arguments to his dad. These arguments reminded me of many a conversation with my own parents, both as a teenager and today, since on most issues we are miles apart in our views. The idea that a teenager is just too young to understand, and their opinion will change (to the correct view of her or his parents) in time will be familiar to many readers.
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