Hacking for Freedom

Cory Doctorow's sequel to Little Brother explores the struggle for civil liberties on the Internet.


Homeland, by Cory Doctorow, Tor Teen, 400 pages, $17.99 

Poor Marcus Yallow. After tangling with the Department of Homeland Security in Cory Doctorow's earlier young adult novel, 2007's Little Brother, he wants nothing more than a job, time with his girlfriend, and some fun at the annual Burning Man festival. Fortunately for the reader, trouble soon finds Yallow in Homeland, Doctorow's sequel. An acquaintance, Masha, gives him a USB stick with a cryptographic key that will unlock a four-gigabyte file of secret government documents. Masha tells him to release its contents if she's ever arrested.

All too soon, Yallow sees Masha and her boyfriend being captured and taken away by Carrie Johnstone, the chief villain in Little Brother, so he's faced with taking responsibility for a document dump he didn't ask for that promises problems he didn't need.

By day, Yallow works within the system, taking a job as a webmaster for an independent candidate for the California senate. By night, he's a part of a guerrilla WikiLeaks-style operation, trying to deal with goons who are out to get him and hackers trying to control his computer and his information. Life gets even more complicated when he starts participating in large outdoor demonstrations that attract the attention of the police. The story should resonate with any reader who worries about online privacy and the government's ability to use the Net as a tool for political repression.

Although Yallow and his buddies are fictional, Homeland is studded with educational bits. One early chapter, for example, includes a recipe for cold-brew coffee. A librarian delivers a lecture on copyright reform. While at Burning Man, Yallow meets four heroes of the Internet—Mitch Kapor, John Gillmor, Wil Wheaton, and John Perry Barlow—and the reader is duly educated on how they relate to the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the creation of Lotus. The infodump continues after the novel ends, with an afterword by Jacob Appelbaum of WikiLeaks and another by the late Aaron Swartz. (Swartz, facing a federal trial and possible prison on felony charges for downloading academic documents, committed suicide on January 11. His exhortations here not to give in to despair and a feeling of powerlessness make for sad reading, but he also explains how political movements to preserve the Internet from censorship have a chance to succeed.) There is also a bibliographic essay on the topics the book covers. It's as if Doctorow, well-known both as a science fiction writer and as a contributor to Boing Boing, figured out how to be a novelist and a blogger in the same book.

The encounter with Kapor and company isn't the only way the novel intersects with reality. Yallow logs on to his laptop using the Paranoid Linux operating system, created to maximize the user's privacy. Paranoid Linux was fictional when Doctorow invented it in Little Brother, but it inspired the creation of a real, albeit short-lived, Paranoid Linux distro. And if you Google "Paranoid Linux," you'll learn about current Linux distributions that emphasize security, such as Tails and LPS. As Doctorow notes in his afterword, Googling terms in the book that might be unfamiliar to the reader—"hackerspace," "drone," "Tor Project," "lawful intercept"—provides many of the novel's educational experiences.

Although Homeland is rather political, there's a deep sense of ambivalence toward partisan politics and electioneering. Yes, Yallow works for a politician, and he doesn't give up on the democratic process, even after some difficult encounters with political reality. But Doctorow gives plenty of space to characters who take a darker view of normal politics. Barack Obama isn't mentioned by name, but one character complains bitterly, "Have you noticed how messed up everything is today? How we put a 'good' president in the White House and he kept right on torturing and bombing and running secret prisons? How every time we turn around, someone's trying to take away the Internet from us, make it into some kind of giant stupid shopping mall where the rent-a-cops can kick you out if they don't like your clothes? 

The marketing for Homeland resembles Internet applications such Pandora, which offer free versions with advertising and paid versions minus the ads. Doctorow is a copyright reform activist, and as with his other books he has made free electronic versions of Homeland available at his website under a Creative Commons license. The free version is frequently interrupted by messages plugging various bookstores and reminders from Doctorow that if you like the book, you really ought to buy a copy, if not for yourself then for your neighborhood library. I like most of Doctorow's causes, so I paid for my Kindle copy.