Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

October 4, 2008

A Review of ‘Little Brother’ by Cory Doctorow

by tarran

The always thought provoking Cory Doctorow has a new book out, Little Brother.  I highly recommend it, even though I think he is very wrong on numerous points.  You can download it for free at the link above.

It is very difficult to write a political novel.  I should know, I’ve started 3 or 4 of them, and they all turned out badly.  When the author is convinced that he is right, the protagonists tend to preach at each other, and the antagonists tend to sound like evil simpletons.  In Little Brother, Mr Doctorow has managed to avoid the former pitfall, while falling deeply into the latter.    While the central theme of the book is interesting, there are several improbable plot twists, a deficiency of analysis, and a deus ex machina ending.  Thus, while I think everyone should read this book, and will actually enjoy it, it will not be the classic that, say 1984 would be.  I will, however, be giving it to my children when they are old enough to understand it.

What follows is chock full of spoilers.  Please stop reading here if you wish to keep the ending a surprise.

The Main Theme

The book is built around the war between 17 year old Marcus Yallow and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in San Fransisco after a major terrorist attack kills 4,000 San Franciscans.  Marcus and his friends have the misfortune of being near the scene of one of the bombings and are picked up DHS for investigation.  At the time of the bombing, they had been playing an Alternate Reality Game, and were carrying various odd tools they needed to play, including Wifi finders, cell phones and portable computers with hacking software and various gizmo’s they had used to sneak out of school without being caught by the ubiquitous surveillance.   Naturally these devices arouse DHS suspicion, and Marcus and his friends find themselves in that awful world where one is suspected of having committed a crime, where one is forced to prove one’s innocence.  Eventually DHS releases Marcus and several members of his team.  They continue to hold one member of his team.  And when they are released, they are all warned that if they say a word about their incarceration, they will be going to jail for a long time.

The bombing triggers a security lock-down of San Fransisco by the DHS, which working in conjunction of the state and city police begin a massive surveillance program, monitoring people’s travel patterns by tracking their cashless mass transit and toll booth passes.  The government also monitors debit card purchases.   The goal of this data mining, which is based on the now officially defunct Total Information Awareness Program is to look for suspicious purchase and travel patterns so that police can follow up on them.  Those whose travel patterns look unusual are stopped and interrogated by police. The promise in the U.S. Constitution that people will be free of unreasonable searches and seizures is, of course, violated.  The protagonist sets about turning the population of San Fransisco against these security measures, triggering ruthless attempts at suppression by DHS, an escalation which eventually results in the state of CA arresting a group of DHS agents – the transfer of the prisoners held in a secret prison on Treasure Island to the CA prison system.  The victory is incomplete since the agents are eventually released into Federal Custody and permitted to resume their careers.  The book ends with the protagonist starting a voter registration drive so that the population will never again be so poorly treated by the government.

The Good

There are several aspects of this book that I found very worthwhile, one that any person contemplating how to resist tyranny or who does not understand civil libertarians insistance on tying government’s hands would do well to listen to.

Why Extreme Preventative Security Is Incompatible With a Free, Prosperous Society

Extreme preventative security does not work.  We know this.  Consider paranoid organizations like the government of North Korea.  The government vigorously watches nearly every citizen, all major decisions are closely scrutinized with a mind toward the security of the state, interactions with foreigners are tightly controlled, every car that drives down a highway has its license plate written down by spies along the road, huge armies are amassed to protect against outside invasion.  Any dissent or hint that the leader’s might have made a mistake is treated as if it were treason.  The end result, many people are not creating wealth, but consuming it while watching their neighbors, the economy does not produce enough food to feed the population.  If does not produce the trade goods needed to exchange for food.  In effect, the economy has no surplus, but operates at a loss.  The population lives in fear, afraid to speak frankly with each other.

Why do these security measures not work?  Well, the math is quite simple.  Say you have a population of N people.  Among these people are n terrorists.  A security measure is implemented that will identify potential terrorists.  Let us assume that the measure is perfect at detecting actual terrorists (this is highly unlikely, but we’ll make that assumption for now).  Let us assume, though that an innocent person being examined by the system will be flagged as a person of interest x% of the time.  If we were to process all N persons through our security system, the system would have the following results:

Correctly Accused Terrorists
Wrongly Accused Non-Terrorists

OK.  So let us plug in some numbers.  Let’s say we have a population of 10 million people (N=10,000,000), with 100 terrorists hidden within it.  Let us further assume that our test will have only a 0.1% chance of falsely flagging an innocent person as being a terrorist.    Plugging the numbers we find that:

Correctly Accused Terrorists 100
Wrongly Accused Non-Terrorists 10,000
Total 10,100

So, the system will flag 10,100 possible terrorists.  The vast majority of those people will be innocent of any wrongdoing.  However, they may have a devil of a time proving their innocence.  And they will have to prove their innocence; a preventative system is not one that has a presumption of innocence built into it.

If we assume that the terrorists are smart and can figure out work-arounds to evade the system so that they falsely appear like normal people to the scanners.  Then you could easily have a situation where all 5,000 flagged by the system are innocent of any wrongdoing.

Each false positive will have to be throughly investigated, meaning that investigators will be very busy.  The system will cause delays.  It will require a large number of investigators who are thus removed from productive activities.  Such measures will alter peoples behavior.  Terrorists behave like hackers:  they improvise their weapons.  Thus the most innovative, inventive people will come under suspicion: kids will not do model rocketry.   Grown men won’t tinker with chemistry sets at home.  Wardriving, photography, ARGing, LARPing all will look suspicious.    The most innovative people will be discouraged from trying crazy stuff, because crazy will appear to be dangerous.

The more active the guys doing preventative security work are, the less innovation there will be.  Pour enough resources into such preventative security, and innovation stops  like  in North Korea.

Given the comparative rarity of terrorist attacks, and the near perfect score of bystanders in stopping them (once the U.S. government’s doctrine of passive cooperation with terrorists was abandoned by the passengers of Flt 93), the expense of trying to stop them, and the large number of innocent people who are harmed by these security procedures and systems, not to mention the fear that these systems induce, we are far better off if we abandon all but the most carefully thought out screening procedures.

Terrorists Don’t Hate Landmarks, They Love Fear

Mr Doctorow makes another observation that bears repeating in these illogical times:

“Why the hell would they blow up the Bay Bridge?” I said. “The Golden Gate is the one on all the postcards.” Even if you’ve never been to San Francisco, chances are you know what the Golden Gate looks like: it’s that big orange suspension bridge that swoops dramatically from the old military base called the Presidio to Sausalito, where all the cutesy wine-country towns are with their scented candle shops and art galleries. It’s picturesque as hell, and it’s practically the symbol for the state of California. If you go to the Disneyland California Adventure park, there’s a replica of it just past the gates, with a monorail running over it.

So naturally I assumed that if you were going to blow up a bridge in San Francisco, that’s the one you’d blow.

“They probably got scared off by all the cameras and stuff,” Jolu said. “The National Guard’s always checking cars at both ends and there’s all those suicide fences and junk all along it.” People have been jumping off the Golden Gate since it opened in 1937 — they stopped counting after the thousandth suicide in 1995.

“Yeah,” Vanessa said. “Plus the Bay Bridge actually goes somewhere.” The Bay Bridge goes from downtown San Francisco to Oakland and thence to Berkeley, the East Bay townships that are home to many of the people who live and work in town. It’s one of the only parts of the Bay Area where a normal person can afford a house big enough to really stretch out in, and there’s also the university and a bunch of light industry over there. The BART goes under the Bay and connects the two cities, too, but it’s the Bay Bridge that sees most of the traffic. The Golden Gate was a nice bridge if you were a tourist or a rich retiree living out in wine country, but it was mostly ornamental. The Bay Bridge is — was — San Francisco’s work-horse bridge.

I thought about it for a minute. “You guys are right,” I said. “But I don’t think that’s all of it. We keep acting like terrorists attack landmarks because they hate landmarks. Terrorists don’t hate landmarks or bridges or airplanes. They just want to screw stuff up and make people scared. To make terror. So of course they went after the Bay Bridge after the Golden Gate got all those cameras — after airplanes got all metal-detectored and X-rayed.” I thought about it some more, staring blankly at the cars rolling down the street, at the people walking down the sidewalks, at the city all around me. “Terrorists don’t hate airplanes or bridges. They love terror.” It was so obvious I couldn’t believe I’d never thought of it before. I guess that being treated like a terrorist for a few days was enough to clarify my thinking.

The other two were staring at me. “I’m right, aren’t I? All this crap, all the X-rays and ID checks, they’re all useless, aren’t they?”

They nodded slowly.

“Worse than useless,” I said, my voice going up and cracking. “Because they ended up with us in prison, with Darryl –” I hadn’t thought of Darryl since we sat down and now it came back to me, my friend, missing, disappeared. I stopped talking and ground my jaws together.

The police cordons, the checkpoints, the searches, the inspections of ID, the database checks – all heighten people’s fear.  In effect, much of the security theater performed by the DHS acts as a force multiplier for Al Queda.  If terror were income, the DHS would be in effect collecting royalties for Al Queda, without the latter having to lift a finger.

Smash the State – But Have Fun Doing It

Most stories about rebellion involve rebellions by people who have somehow been harmed by the powers that be, who set out to get revenge or to overthrow the oppressors on principle.  Everyone is serious, and everyone is committed etc.

Of course, in reality such organizations are easily rolled up by the state:  after all, all the state has to do is send out a person who pretends to be someone who has been wronged, and they will be welcomed into a group that is united only by their unhappiness.  Since the number of wronged people is generally low, and the people don’t really know each other, these ringers can not only easily join, but they also tend to rise to positions of leadership, and their regular payment of dues or contributions to the organizations generally keeps it financially afloat.

Marcus takes a different route:  the rebellion is camouflaged by a community of gamers. The X-Net, an encrypted network interconnecting the conspirators is primarily designed for game play.  The disk containing the software for logging into the network are copied and distributed and copied and distributed primarily by people who are seeking access to a free gaming environment.

Conspirators log into various games, and communicate by sending encrypted IM’s within the game.   They arrange for interviews with the press in these game rooms.  And when they want to arrange for a large number of people to perform a prank or to protest something, they broadcast the message to all the gamers.  Most of the people on X-Net have nothing to do with th erebllion though.  They are people having fun.

People are recruited not by haranguing, not by looking for people who have been harmed but by bing invited to do something fun.  The power of the group comes from the fact that their primary purpose is to have fun and enjoy themselves.  This is a refreshing change.  It reminded me of a few of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals:

Rule 5: Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It’s hard to counterattack ridicule, and it infuriates the opposition, which then reacts to your advantage.

Rule 6: A good tactic is one your people enjoy. “If your people aren’t having a ball doing it, there is something very wrong with the tactic.”

The Bad

School Propaganda

One sub-plot that permeates the first 80% of the book is Marcus’ difficulties at school.  At first it starts plausibly enough: the children are surveilled, monitored and tightly controlled at the school.  Their school issued laptops monitor every keystroke, every file edited or viewed, every website visited.  Certainly the impulse to do this is quite high amongst administrators, so this is quite understandable.

However, after the terrorist attacks, his social studies teacher is fired, and replaced by a person who is a caricature of a political reliability instructor in a school. The new teacher teaches a neocon theory of law, society and history.  Her speeches are essentially a long string of cliches strung together.  I found this implausible: a bunch of kids in a public school are not important to warrant such a change, especially when the change happens on such short notice. While the purpose of the school is to explain how Marcus developed his wizardry at cracking security and surveillance systems, and to also explain why he is so instinctively hostile to authorities,  much of the storyline involving the school detracted from the plausibility of the novel.  I say this with all the authority of someone who has failed every time he has decided to write a novel, especially when confronted with a published book written by one of the more prolific and popular authors of this era.

Redefining Normal

The central goal of the conspirators is to force the redefine what looks ‘normal’ to DHS intelligence agents.  X-Net’s encrypted packets are needles in a haystack of encrypted packets associated with a legal music charing service.  The police are goaded into attacking average law abiding people by fiddling with the data so that ordinary people appear to be behaving in extraordinary ways.  While in principle this is a decent strategy, the execution as described in the book left me unconvinced.

The incitement of police attacks against the law abiding citizenry is achieved by using ARFIDS, devices for reprogramming RFID tags on the fly.  The XNetters carry these devices and randomly swap credit card numbers, transponder codes and the like, meaning that a person who is traveling between two points on the mass transit will have their voyage logged as trips by multiple individuals.  And, looking at the travel logs associated with A’s transponder code would actually be displaying segments of the journeys of B, C, D, and E. The end result is portrayed as chaos as average citizens are pulled over and interrogated by police about trips they never made, trips that were made by someone else carrying a surreptitiously reprogrammed card.

Economics?  What’s That?

The reaction of authorities and the citizenry completely ignored economic ramifications of the XNet attack.

Take Marcus’ father, who was shown falsely to have made several trips to Berkley. These trips would have actually been made by multiple other people.  Of course, Marcus’ father should have been billed for the trips.  The inevitable result would be lawsuits as people received bills for trips they never made, and sued/complained about the injustice  of it all. There should have been a massive backlash by the citizenry in reaction to the significant costs being imposed upon them by the X-Netter attack.  No mention of such a backlash is ever made in the book.  I found the dearth of economic effects very strange; economic considerations would have been driving much of the actions of the apolitical citizenry.

No cop can figure out the tech

Another baffling implication in the story is that DHS hires teenagers to spy on other teenagers’ activities and to explain the operation of the various tools and mods made by the XNetters.  I found this implausible in the extreme:  while the cop on the beat may not be hip to the latest gadgets, police forces are quite capable of finding technologically savvy people who are willing to take the king’s coin in exchange for monstrous, yet interesting projects.  The DARPA autonomous vehicle project comes to mind.

The large number of homeland security projects that have people enthusiastically working on them is a testament to the fact that many technically savvy people will quite happily work on interesting technical problems even when the solutions are intended to facilitate tyranny.

What Idiot Makes Movies of His Conspiratorial Plans?

One disgruntled DHS staffer provides Marcus with a very convenient movie demonstrating that the governemnt is trying to radicalize XNet in order to mute opposition to the president’s policies.  While the fact that such a discussion would take place is quite plausible, the notion that the conspirators would be idiotic enough to film it and lose control of the data file beggars belief.

Cops arresting cops?

The climactic moment in the book occurs when the CA governor orders the arrest of all DHS agents found operating the secret prison on Treasure Island.  I found this implausible in the extreme:  cops don’t arrest other cops unless they absolutely have to.  In fact, thanks to the increasing militarization of the police, and their increasing isolation from the rest of society, generally policemen from different police forces feel greater camaraderie towards each other than they do to non-police who happen to be neighbors.  One only need look at the despicable assistance given by CA state troopers to the DEA when the DEA raided medical marijuana dispensaries.  Despite the laws that forbid state troopers from assisting in the enforcement of some of those laws, the local police provided intelligence and crowd control services during the raids. The effect of the XNetter campaign would have been to further radicalize the police and to encourage them to see themselves on the same side as DHS and not as opponents of their tyranny.

Everyone Should Vote – Because More Cooks Will Improve The Soup

A common misconception amongst people who are socially activist is that having more people vote improves the political process by making politicians accountable.  While this seems obviously correct, it is, in fact, quite wrong.  Expanding the voting pool does not help matters, rather it makes politicians more prone to indulge in demagoguery and to pander to moral panics.  Let’s face it, the average person is as interested in the analyzing the outcome of some politicians policies about as much as he or she is interested in writing a computer program or changing their oil.  Most people are not interested in politics.  They don’t think about politics.  So what do they base their decisions on?  Well, they generally vote based on emotion, meaning that to get these voters , politicians must pander to these emotional judgements.   Bryan Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter does a good job of examining voters’ economic ignorance.  Voters are similarly ignorant on questions of science, defense and law.

A government that respects the rights of the citizenry is impossible, much like there is no way to force someone to have sex with you without raping them.  Governments are organizations that claim a monopoly on the use of force on some territory.  They use violence to assure that people provide them with goods and services through taxes and jury duty and the like.  They arrogate to themselves useful economic activities such as fire fighting, criminal apprehension, and education which they usually perform very badly since they don’t have to worry about dissatisfied consumers withholding payment.  They often impose emotional rules on the people that live within their territory such as Jim Crow laws, immigration laws,  zoning laws, laws outlawing certain narcotics entirely, and banning others on holy days.  They partner with non-state organizations in providing rents to rent seekers in exchange for rent seekers’ support of the state, this is most blatant with medical licensing laws.

Having more voters provide input into which of 2 – 5 people will control one of the few politically assigned offices in the huge state apparatus will not change the incentives that animate the apparatus.  Leviathan will grow, and people will face fewer and fewer choices as more an more economic activity is controlled not by voluntary choices by consumers but by dictates by the state.


These problems with the book are far outweighed by its thought provoking nature.  It asks some very interesting questions, and I recommend it with only a few reservations.  I intend to give it to all the young hackers I know, and I urge you to do the same.

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  • Brad Warbiany

    When the author is convinced that he is right, the protagonists tend to preach at each other, and the antagonists tend to sound like evil simpletons.


    You’re going to make Ayn Rand’s corpse mad!

  • Jono

    I like Ayn Rand’s antagonists. They weren’t evil simpletons, until the end.

    They were meddling do-gooders, who spoke in the language of brotherhood, solidarity, social justice and equality.

    Only in the very end, was their ideology was revealed as one of coercion and irrationality.

  • Greg Cerveny

    So… I scrolled past all the spoilers because I just wanted to invite you to join the discussion about Little Brother on Urban Monarch.

    Check it out here:

    I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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