Do you wonder when you send an e-mail if anyone other than the recipient can read it? Do you worry about someone tracking your credit card spending? Cory Doctorow worries about things like that. A lot.
The former European director of Electronic Frontier, an organization defending free speech and privacy rights, and co-editor of the Boing Boing blog, Doctorow was named one of the Web's 25 influencers by Forbes magazine.
Now he has written Little Brother, a young-adult novel set in San Francisco, the site of a fictional 9/11-style terrorist attack. The Department of Homeland Security, under the guise of preventing another attack, places the city under martial law. (Full disclosure here: My husband works for an agency under DHS.)
In the wrong place at the wrong time, 17-year-old Marcus Yallow and his three friends are detained and abused for days. A wise guy who's always ready for a good prank, the humiliated and infuriated Marcus fights back.
He and a growing band of rebels battle to bring down the government using nothing more than their Xbox systems, laptops and e-mail. The stakes are high, with DHS making anyone who opposes it disappear into Gitmo-like prisons in Syria.
Doctorow's greatest gift as a writer is the ability to explain complex technological systems and devices in clear language, perfect for techno newbies. Even the casual computer user will care deeply about the ability to encrypt e-mail, tunnel video clips and protect personal arphids from being read at random.
Doctorow's shortcoming is his inability to fairly portray the people Marcus opposes or present the other side of the story in balancing security and liberty. Many characters, including Marcus' oldest friends and his father, believe the government is right to temporarily suspend the Bill of Rights, but their arguments are transparently weak.
Doctorow's passion on privacy rights, the novel's linchpin, also creates the book's other weakness. The state of DHS preparedness — its personnel storm into the city within minutes of the attack in hundreds of well-equipped semi-trailers — is never properly explained. This is the same organization that was unable to respond effectively to Hurricane Katrina.
With afterwords by infamous hacker Andrew "Bunnie" Huang and security consultant Bruce Schneier, the novel's real-life applications and implications are clearly genuine. Little Brother is meant to inspire teens toward independent thinking, analysis and privacy protection. Like all tools, technology works best for those who understand it, and the greater understanding one possesses, the more technology will be a help rather than a menace.
Tammar Stein is the author of a young adult novel, "High Dive,"
coming in June.