Review of "Little Brother" by Cory Doctorow, ISBN#978-0765319852 The premise of "Little Brother" is that terrorists have launched a major attack on San Francisco. The Dept. of Homeland Security has responded with a massive program to monitor everybody's email, set up public surveillance camera's (like England has already got), and various attempts to track every citizen's movements every minute of the day. A group of students believes that these efforts are a bigger danger than the terrorists. They set up a private Internet that can't be monitored, and proceed to mess up the new security systems in various ways. Their objective being to get the public so aroused that they will rise up and demand their rights back. The book is Science Fiction, in that it contains some technology that doesn't yet exist. But it might more properly be called Science Near-Fiction, because everything in it is technically possible today (and most of it likely to be available in the next few years). In the book, you can buy individual components and build your own laptop computer from scratch. No, that's not really practicable today. But I've built several desktop computers from scratch, and if laptops continue to replace desktops as the standard household computer, then it's quite believable that we might get to where the book is within the next few years. The students use an Operating System called Paranoid Linux, that was developed to allow dissidents in China to communicate with being caught by the Communist government. Paranoid Linux doesn't really exist (although some people were inspired by the book and are now trying to create it). But regular Linux has been around for years (it's a little geeky, but has some definite advantages over Windows). As far as I can tell, all the encryption technology discussed in the book is accurate. If you want a practical overview of where computer security is today and might be in the immediate future, the story could almost be taken as a textbook example. In the book, the DHS goes wild and begins acting like Nazis. And yes, government behavior like that should be stopped. But should you begin by shutting them down completely? I mean, there have been several recorded instances where the FBI has violated people's civil rights. I think the individual personnel involved should have been criminally prosecuted for having done so. But would it be smart to shut down the FBI tomorrow, given that the majority of what they're doing is worthwhile? Likewise, if the DHS ever really became abusive of citizens, then it should be reigned in. But common sense would suggest that, if they're actually trying to stop terrorist attacks, then you should be a little bit concerned with deliberately trying to overwhelm the system with so many protesters that they don't have any time left to chase real terrorists. How does this happen in the story? Let's say the DHS is trying to catch terrorists by looking at who is sending and receiving a suspicious amount of encrypted email. Now, 99.9% of the encrypted email on the Internet is going to be perfectly legitimate. But if they found a way to filter it, and did a lot of hard work, it's just possible that they might be able to detect a terrorist that way. But then a bunch of students hear about the government "spying on their email". So, they get some of their friends, and their friend's friends, to send all their email using encryption. Now, the amount of encrypted traffic has suddenly increased so much that actually sorting through it all has gone from very difficult to completely impossible. Mind you, at this point, not one email has been read. The government may not even be able to break the encryption (and if they could read encrypted email, then they're probably going to go to great lengths to never admit it. The book practically has the DHS calling people's wives to tell them what their husband was doing the night before). The hero of the book is offended because the government originally treated him as possible terrorist. Well, many criminal investigations begin with examining everyone who had the opportunity to commit the crime, and involve questioning ten innocent people in the course of trying to find one guilty person. By itself, that doesn't mean the ten innocents were being persecuted. The book paints a picture of worst-case government abuses. The government doesn't just try to catch terrorists, but uses it's new found powers to silence all dissent. Anyone who questions what the government is doing is classified as a terrorist and arrested. Of course, in real life, one would hope that somebody in the government would have brains enough to distinguish between student protesters and terrorists. Much of the book, both in action and in dialog, is devoted to the discussion of Civil Rights and how much the government should be allowed to do. Personally, I find the book to set up false arguments on both sides of the issue. The government is trying to protect citizens, so it can suspend any Civil Rights it feels like, right? Well, no, it can't. That reasoning would allow any government to do anything it wants as long as it claims it's for your own good (just ask Josef Stalin how he defined "for your own good"). The government is trampling on our Civil Rights, so we're justified in doing whatever we want to in order to stop the government from functioning, right? Well, not necessarily. While I certainly think there are circumstances where Civil Disobedience is appropriate, it does not, for example, justify injuring innocent bystanders. In the story, the government has set up security checkpoints at, among many other places, hospitals. The students foul up the entire city's security systems so badly that, instead of waiting 30 minutes to get into the hospital, now everyone has to stand in line for two hours. Well, hooray for freedom. But what about all the people who were trying to get into the hospital because they were sick or injured or in pain? There are always human consequences to be considered, and the book tends to skip over these consequences. I also think care needs to be taken to ensure that you're not doing more harm than good. For instance, I seem to recall a few years ago that some intelligence agency got a hold of a phone list of known terrorists. They then got together with the cell phone companies and found a way to tap the terrorists phone calls. Now, this is starting to get into dangerous ground, because the government has no business tapping any phones of US Citizens unless it has a really good, legally justified reason for doing so. But apparently they were restricting their eavesdropping to foreign terrorists, and presumably getting a lot of valuable intelligence by doing so. Then the New York Times blabbed about it to the whole world. The next day all the terrorists were using a different method to communicate, that we couldn't listen in on. By the next week, the Times was, of course, back to blaming the government for not making any headway in catching terrorists. I will mention in passing that if, during WWII, any newspaper had attempted to publish the fact that the US Navy had broken the Japanese codes, FDR would have forcibly shut down that paper and had the Editorial Staff thrown in jail for the duration of the war (without charges being filed, no lawyers, no phone calls, etc). Personally, I'm pretty much a Civil Libertarian. I think three-fourths of the people working for the civil government should be fired, and the remaining quarter should be required to start doing something useful. I thing the vast majority of what the government currently does is both flat-out unconstitutional and ultimately destructive to society. However, one of the big things the government is supposed to be doing is protecting National Security. As "Little Brother" illustrates, that should not give the government free reign to trample citizens underfoot. At the same time, the government does have a legitimate interest in catching terrorists. And if you're trying to prevent terrorists from planting bombs, then I don't know a way to do that without sometimes checking innocent people to see if they're carrying a bomb into someplace. What's the proper balance between National Security and Civil Rights? Frankly, I'm not sure. Historically, some of the worst abuses have always occurred during times of war (speaking out in public against either Lincoln or Woodrow Wilson won you an all expense paid trip to the nearest Federal prison). But I don't believe the choice is between having a Police State and giving up on even trying to fight Terrorism. There is a balance between the two extremes.