Technogeeks Save America

The libertarian lessons of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother


We know what happened to our civil liberties after the terrorist atrocities on September 11th. Imagine what would happen to our civil liberties if another major terrorist attack occurred. That's the premise of the new young adult novel Little Brother by Boing Boing co-editor Cory Doctorow.

The story opens with 17-year old Marcus Yallow, a.k.a. w1n5t0n, a senior at Cesar Chavez High School in San Francisco. Stuck in a boring social studies class, Yallow is busy checking out his favorite ARG (alternative reality game) site, Harajuku Fun Madness ("best game ever"). A new clue has just been revealed, prompting the cocky technogeek Marcus to jam his school's clunky surveillance systems so that he and his crew can ditch school and go find it. Just as his buddies Darryl, Vanessa (Van), and JoLu (Jose Luis) converge on the clue site, a terrorist attack blows up both the Bay Bridge and the BART tunnels under the bay.

As the young gamesters try to escape the crush of panicked San Franciscans, Darryl is stabbed. Marcus flags down one of the armored Hummers that suddenly appear everywhere on the streets in the hopes of getting Darryl to a hospital. Wrong place, wrong time. What turn out to be Department of Homeland Security goons roughly truss him and his friends up, and toss them into a concentration camp.

Doctorow makes what happens next chillingly plausible. Marcus and his friends are treated as potential enemy combatants. Marcus refuses to unlock his cellphone and decrypt his files as a female Homeland Security agent orders. "Honest people don't have anything to hide," warns the interrogator. She ignores his demands for an attorney and to speak with his parents. For refusing to cooperate, Marcus is locked up in solitary confinement where he is physically and psychically humiliated until he finally breaks down. Eventually his DHS questioners are satisfied that he is in fact just a smart alecky high school kid who misunderstands the real limits of his civil rights. They force him to sign a document saying that he'd been well-treated and then let him and his friends Van and JoLu go. They are warned not to tell anyone—not even their parents—what happened to them or else they'll be thrown back into internment. Darryl is still missing.

Post-attack San Francisco is now an occupied city—occupied by repressive Homeland Security thugs. Citizens' movements are continually monitored by both surveillance cameras and by means of the electronic traces left by their credit cards and transit passes. (This is disturbingly reminiscent of the Defense Department's Total Information Awareness program which involved deploying massive information aggregation and analysis technologies to create, as New York Times columnist William Safire described it, "computer dossiers on 300 million Americans.") If someone deviates from their usual activities, DHS agents drop by demanding to know what they are up to.

Fueled with fierce idealism and energy, Marcus is determined to resist the despotism of his government and to spring Darryl from the clutches of the DHS. Using his Xbox gaming console and ParanoidLinux, Marcus devises a way to create a secure network to get around Homeland Security. From there the resistance begins to spread. ParanoidLinux is described as "an operating system that assumes that its operator is under assault from the government (it was intended for use by Chinese and Syrian dissidents), and it does everything it can to keep your communications and documents a secret."

The novel depicts a genuinely thrill-packed fight for freedom. Little Brother shows how the savvy use of technologies such as RFID cloners, Bayesian analysis, and cryptography can liberate people from oppressive government. Unless you're completely oblivious, Little Brother will fuel your anger over the freedoms that we have already lost to our growing national security state. Moreover, as Little Brother shows, resistance is not futile.

Final recommendation: Help disseminate these subversive ideas. Little Brother is a wonderful Christmas, birthday, bar or bat mitzvah gift for any young adult you know. If you don't want to buy it, you can download it for free here. And any of you guys over age 25, I bet it will inspire you, too.

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.