In the national conversation about personal privacy vs. the needs of government surveillance, you may hear someone say, “if you haven’t dome anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide.” People who argue from that position should need a copy of Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.
The gist: In the “few weeks from now” future, terrorists destroy the Bay Bridge and a BART tunnel in the San Francisco Bay area. A group of high school students skipping school while looking for clues in for an online puzzle game, find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. The students are swept up in the ensuing dragnet as “suspicious persons” and submitted to brutal questioning intimidation by a draconian Homeland Security apparatus. Frightened, angry, and humiliated, the teens are determined to fight back by exposing the government’s hamfisted (and ineffective) response to the attacks. And…
Never underestimate the determination of a kid who is time-rich and cash-poor.
The teenagers are led by Marcus – hacker name w1n5t0n. If you can read that name without saying the names of any numbers, you are smarter than Marcus’s principal. The kids are able to pull off their techno hi-jinks in this novel because they understand things that most adults do not. They are of a generation for which the internet has always existed. They understand the inner workings of computers; cell phones; the internet; and electronic badges, tags and IDs – as well as their privacy implications. Marcus also recognizes the fallacies of computer data mining as a tool for fighting terrorism.
Terrorists are really rare. In a city of twenty million like New York, there might be one or two terrorists. Maybe ten at the outside. 10/20,000,000=0.00005 percent…Now, say you’ve got some software that can sift through…records…and catch terrorists 99 percent of the time. In a pool of twenty million people, a 99 percent accurate test will identify two hundred thousand people as being terrorists. But only ten of them are terrorists. To catch ten bad guys, you have to haul in and investigate two hundred thousand innocent people.
Guess what? Terrorism tests aren’t even close to 99 percent accurate.
Marcus and his gang of avengers use this knowledge to make everyone appear to be suspicious. The results that the kids are able to achieve are alarming to anyone who has not thought twice about how easily their personal identifying information can get passed around these days.
Doctorow’s book is unabashedly techno geeky. Here’s Marcus waxing poetic on the subject of computer programming:
If you’ve never programmed a computer, you should. There’s nothing like it in the whole world. When you program a computer it does exactly what you tell it to do…It’s awesome in the truest sense: it can fill you with awe…Even if you only write code for one day, one afternoon, you have to do it…
Doctorow has written a book for teens that (1) they will want to read – on paper even, (2) encourages them to embrace and understand technology, and (3) makes sure that they will always question how that technology can be abused. Even though the book was written for a teen audience, the issues that Doctorow raises are critical for all of us to understand as participating members of a democracy. A capsule review in yesterday’s Washington Post (third review) says:
Cory Doctorow tackles timely issues, including the erosion of civil liberties in the name of national security. Hopefully, teens will pass this cautionary tale on to parents, teachers and government officials.
Or you can eliminate the middle man and just pick up the book yourself.
Doctorow also writes about technology issues (and just about everything else) as part of the team at the pioneering blog Boing Boing.