Five Stars for Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother

Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother (Tor Books, 2008; my references are to the free PDF version from succeeds both as a YA techie adventure novel and as an introduction to the debate over security versus the intertwined freedoms of privacy rights and the right to freedom of speech/self-expression. It also succeeds to some extent as an elementary how-to on protecting yourself from post-Patriot Act government surveillance.

I hope I’m wrong about this (please enlighten me if I am), but I doubt that Nebraska teachers are including the book in curriculum for teens under 16 or 17, if at all (and they’re likely to get flack from school boards and parents if they do, both because of the sex scenes and because of the book’s pro-freedom stance). I doubt that the schools will even have it in their libraries – and that’s a shame, because if anyone easily understands the need for privacy and self-expression and the horror of having neither, it’s a teenager. Little Brother ought to be on our library shelves and we ought to make sure our teens are reading and discussing it. It’s not dated and unfortunately is likely to stay timely.

As Doctorow says on page 1 of his introduction:

When I was 17 …..
In the Soviet Union communications tools were being used to bring information and revolution to the farthest flung corners of the largest authoritarian state the Earth had ever seen. But 17 years later, things are very different. The computers I love are being co-opted, used to spy on us, control us, snitch on us. The National Security Agency has illegally wire-tapped the entire USA and gotten away with it. Car rental companies and mass transit and traffic authorities are watching where we go, sending us automated tickets, finking us out to busybodies, cops and bad guys who gain illicit access to their databases. The Transport Security Administration maintains a “no-fly” list of people who’d never been convicted of any crime, but who are nevertheless considered too dangerous to fly. The list’s contents are secret. The rule that makes it enforceable is secret. The criteria for being added to the list are secret. It has four-year-olds on it. And US senators. And decorated veterans, actual war heroes.

It’s always been and probably always will be a constant battle to maintain freedom of speech/expression because the powers that be, whoever/whatever they are, always benefit from making sure that only they, not investigative reporters or whistle-blowers or your average rebellious young people, have it. Freedom of speech and open access to information are dangerous to those who want power and profit only for themselves, because information is powerful and the freedom to express yourself is powerful, especially if you do it well. The same goes for privacy rights – they’re dangerous to the powers that be because the lack of them gives others so much more power to terrorize and completely silence us.

As the narrator, Marcus Yallow (w1n5t0n, later M1k3y), says on p. 22, the right to privacy is not important because you need to conceal shameful acts. “It’s about doing something private. It’s about your life belonging to you. They were taking that from me, piece by piece.” If we can’t have and maintain personal boundaries that others have no right to breach, we’re left feeling naked and powerless and vulnerable to abuse, even when we have done nothing wrong – and we really then ARE powerless and vulnerable to abuse.

One of my favorite passages is the narrator’s discussion of the Paradox of the False Positive (p. 47-48), because it explains so well why collecting data on everything eradicates privacy while it allows threats to citizens from those with access (legal and illegal) to the data but does NOT protect citizens against terrorism. Another favorite passage is Doctorow’s explanation of why he publishes free e-books under a Creative Commons ( license (see the CC license on this site):

If you’re not making art with the intention of having it copied, you’re not really making art for the twenty-first century. There’s something charming about making work you don’t want to be copied, in the same way that it’s nice to go to a Pioneer Village and see the oldetimey blacksmith shoeing a horse at his traditional forge. But it’s hardly, you know, contemporary. I’m a science fiction writer. It’s my job to write about the future (on a good day) or at least the present. Art that’s not supposed to be copied is from the past.

Little Brother describes both fictional and actual tools for evading keyloggers, censorware, and other invisible monitors on the internet (and was published long enough ago to be very out-of-date, so triple check anything you use, OFTEN, to be sure what you’re using can work):

  • IMParanoid, the fictional secret instant messenger in the book, may exist under some name now but you can’t find it easily with an internet search. What you CAN find is the fascinating hacker blog, .
  • TOR, The Onion Router, an indie internet connection, actually exists. See‎ .
  • The hint that any program whose name starts with $SYS$ is invisible to the operating system may or may not be true, so renaming your Firefox browser $SYS$Firefox may or may not work. I haven’t been able to figure this out, one way or another. Anyone who knows, please send me a link to the documentation.
  • INDIE OS: Paranoid Linux is the fictional operating system in Little Brother that assumes that its operator is under assault from the government. There have been rumors about it being in development since 2008. Other systems with such goals evidently are under development or may have been developed. See
  • Public and private keys to keep messages private and insure messages are from their purported author (Little Brother, p 55-56) are treated extensively in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and described in detail in Wikipedia.
  • Tunneling (piping over DNS) is actual. See Dan Kaminsky,

I especially like these References at the end of the book and hope I can get to many of them in the not-distant future:

  • O’Reilly’s MAKE magazine (how-tos for hardware projects at home). See also .
  • Ed Felten and Alex J. Halderman, Freedom to Tinker blo, About security, wiretapping, anticopying technology, and crypto.
  • Dan Kaminsky, About Tunneling (piping over DNS).
  • Dan Gillmor, Center for Citizen Media at Harvard and UC Berkeley, We, the Media, O’Reilly, 2004.
  • Annalee Newitz, “The RFID Hacking Underground,” Wired Magazine, (
  • Adam Greenfield, Everyware, New Riders Press, 2006. A look at the dangers of a world of arphids.
  • Neal Gershenfeld, Fab Lab at MIT, Fab, Basic Books, 2005.
  • Bruce Sterling, Shaping Things, MIT Press, 2005. How arphids and fabs could be used to force companies to build products that don’t poison the world.
  • The Electronic Frontier Foundation, Spends donated money to keep the Internet safe for personal liberty, free speech, due process, and the rest of the Bill of Rights. EFF also helps maintain TOR, The Onion Router, See also American Civil Liberties Union (, Public Knowledge (, FreeCulture (, Creative Commons (
  • Slashdot, “News for Nerds, Stuff That Matters” ( Chronicles the fight for cyber liberties.
  • Wikipedia. Covers hacking and counterculture in depth and up-to-date. See both the entries and the “History” and “Discussion” links at the top of every Wikipedia page.
  • Cryptome ( Publishes material from Freedom of Information Act requests and from whistleblowers.
  • The Pirate Party (, Denmark, the USA and France in July, 2006.

2 thoughts on “Five Stars for Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother

  1. Michael Sauers

    Maria, I’m so glad you enjoyed this as much as you did. I’ve always found that reading Cory’s work is as much of a learning experience as it is an entertainment experience.

    As for the $SYS$ thing, that refers back to the Sony Rootkit which you can read more about @ These days, that particular issue isn’t really an issue any more, but the concept of rootkits hasn’t gone away.

    And, if you want more adventures of Marcus, check out the sequel “Homeland”. (Sorry, no plans to put that one on the reading list.)




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