Reviewsday Tuesday: Little Brother (is Big Brother for the 21st Century)

“I’m a senior at Cesar Chavez High in San Francisco’s sunny Mission district, and that makes me one of the most surveilled people in the world.”

– Marcus Yallow in Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow

So begins Little Brother, written by Cory Doctorow. This book is among the best (possibly the best) stories I’ve read this year. It is also the most important book I’ve read in a long time.

Little_Brother Title

The premise: seventeen year old narrator Marcus Yallow, along with a few of his friends, is in the wrong place at the wrong time when terrorists strike San Francisco. They are picked up by the Department of Homeland Security and brought to an unknown location for interrogation. Once released, Marcus finds that his country has become a police state. The level of surveillance described is not dystopian – it is a disturbingly plausible portrait of the USA in the immediate future. The setting of this story is only a few panicked steps removed from where we are today.

There is much to discuss here, but let me focus on a few key themes.

First: the language of security theatre. Immediately after the attacks, security cameras are introduced to San Francisco classrooms. To prevent litigation, a permission slip is distributed to the students.

“The law said they couldn’t force us to go to school with cameras all over the place, but it didn’t say anything about us volunteering to give up our Constitutional rights. The letter said that the Board was sure that they would get complete compliance from the city’s parents, but that they would make arrangements to teach those kids whose parents objected in a separate set of “unprotected” classrooms.”

– Marcus Yallow, in Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

The letter does two things. First, the Board’s assurance of ‘complete compliance’ implies that any reasonable person would sign. Second, the word ‘unprotected’ suggests that any parent who objects is not interested in the safety of their children. This letter pre-emptively shames any parents hesitant about security cameras by portraying them as unreasonable, even negligent parents. This is precisely how security theatre works – it imposes measures that don’t increase security (how are cameras in classrooms going to prevent future terrorist acts?) but delegitimizes any protest before anyone has the opportunity to voice it.

Second theme: the ineffectiveness of excessive surveillance. The DHS goes to incredible lengths to track the movements of the city – they monitor transit passes, fast-passes on vehicles going over toll bridges, bank card usage…anything that creates a digital trace. The local police are enlisted to locate and question anyone whose usage patterns are statistically ‘abnormal’ – whether or not that person is of interest to any ongoing investigation. They needlessly detain thousands of people, generally obstruct daily life in the city, and come up with no useful information.

Pictured: security. Photo source: "No photography guard tower" by Lance Cognolatti -  Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons .

Pictured: security.
Photo source: “No photography guard tower” by Lance Cognolatti – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons .

Finally, what struck me most was that after the initial attack, hardly any mention is made of the (presumably) ongoing investigation to find the people responsible for the attack. The story revolves around state measures against citizens who object to or attempt to circumvent heavy surveillance – not about state measures against suspected criminals. The disjunction between the initial attack and the subsequent security measures is at times so severe that they feel unrelated to one another. One has the impression that the attack is being used as a pretext to justify long-planned extensions of authority for the DHS. One could even suggest the lack of an obvious perpetrator is politically useful to them – a population is more likely to submit to intrusive measures against an unknown ‘them’ who may be among their midst. Identifying the enemy risks finding them dead, imprisoned, or outside one’s borders – how then to justify internal surveillance?

Bottom line: read Little Brother. If you don’t know much about coding and online privacy, you’ll learn lots. Seriously – Marcus is the type of coder who can explain what he’s doing to those around him, and by extension to the reader. If you think you don’t care about the connection between online privacy and national security measures, this book will convince you otherwise. If you’re like me, you won’t be able to put it down and will power through it in no time at all.

So go forth and question security theatre. Also, if you have read it and also have a spare copy of Homeland, the sequel to this book…lend it to me? It recently made it to the top of my to-read list.

Reading this has probably landed you on some kind of watch list.

Reading this has probably landed you on some kind of watch list.


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