Book Review: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.
If you’ve got nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, is the saying so many politicians wheel out whenever they want to bring in some new draconian surveillance or database or police power. It’s so maddening to hear because the people who say it tend to believe steadfastly in the incorruptability of the people who enforce these powers.
The main problem with it, despite being flawed, is that it’s dangerously wrong. Innocent people hide things. Innocent people have things they don’t want others snooping through. It’s not a crime to have secrets, or privacy, and it’s not unreasonable to expect to be able to have and keep them.
Of course you can’t just make a law that states no one has any privacy anymore. But you can say it’s illegal not to comply with an official who needs information “for national security”. Of course, because it’s a national secret, you are not allowed to know why the information is needed, what it’s going to be used for and how it’s going to be kept. It’s a secret. Trust us, just like we don’t trust you.
Cory Doctorow is one of the internet’s big privacy advocates, a champion of free and open. He’s an editor of the endlessly fascinating blog BoingBoing (seriously, if you don’t have this in your RSS reader, you’re not using RSS properly, it has something for absolutely everyone in it) and an author. He also gives away his books. For free, under the condition that you are allowed to share it as far and wide as you like, as long as you don’t profit from it. He also has major publishing deals and sells the books that he also gives away. It sounds backwards, it sounds like it shouldn’t work. Yet it does. He seems to believe, like many people are starting to realise, that an artists biggest problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity.
So, how does this relate to security, privacy and your rights? I’ve just finished reading one of his books, Little Brother. It’s an extraordinary book, in that it’s both a fast paced, gripping and relentless story, but also acts an introduction to hacking and security (personal and computer).
The story starts in a very near future. It’s about a 17 year olds personal fight for his freedom, for his liberty, for his friends against the system.The technology is no different to what we have now, but the surveillance laws are (slightly) more draconian. It’s important to the impact of the book, that it could very easily happen, right now. There is nothing in it that doesn’t either exist, or couldn’t exist with already existing technology. It’s not sci fi, more modern thriller.
The title “Little Brother” sets the books position as a counter point to George Orwell’s Big Brother from the book “1984”, but instead of a story about trying to survive, fighting back, taking on the big faceless government system. Marcus and a small group of friends are caught up in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack on their home city. In the confusion that follows they are arrested by the Department of Homeland Security and held in guantanamo bay like conditions. Upon his release Marcus swears vengance for his unjust treatment.
The book does a great job of addressing the “if you’ve got nothing to hide” BS. What do you have to lose? More than a guilty person. A guilty person has given up freedom, knows the consequences of his actions, and effectively surrenders them, they’ve made a choice, a trade, their actions for the consequences. An innocent has made no such choice, and therefore loses control and choice, and certainty. If someone is detaining you arbitarily, you have no way of knowing for how long, what rule they will come out with next, or how many times they will deny you your rights.
Over the last few years I’ve been turned off open source software and the open rights groups. I often find the attutude of a few people in that crowd so infuriating and petty that I got sick of the whole thing. It’s apparently very easy to come across as preachy, self righeous and snobbish on this subject, and it’s given me a bad attitude towards the whole subject, while losing sight of the actual important issues. This book has brought it all back to my attention with a bang. By the end of reading this book you will be wanting to rip the network cables from your computer until you get all your emails and web use encrypted. It even (just for a little bit mind) made me think I though trade in my iPhone for an Android and put Linux on my MacBook…
It’s fast paced, action packed, thoughtful, educational, just plain good read. The next time I recommend someone read 1984, I’ll be saying, “and also, definitely read Little Brother”
Download Cory Doctorow’s books.
Little Brother specifically and a download link, virtually every format going, kindle, sony, iBooks, plain text, html, the list goes on and an Amazon link if you want the dead tree version.
Here’s a video of Cory delivering a talk on the issue of online privacy, social networks and the information we so freely give out for little to no return, with no guarantee of confidentiality at TED