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Author Talk: July 2008

July 2008

In this interview, science fiction author Cory Doctorow discusses what inspired LITTLE BROTHER, his first book for young adults, and explains how his concerns about vanishing civil liberties in the face of advancing technology in a post-9/11 society fed the plot of the novel. He also describes some of the seemingly unrealistic technologies featured in the book, elaborates on the story's overall message and reveals what he hopes readers will take away from it.

Question: Tell us a little bit about LITTLE BROTHER.

Cory Doctorow: LITTLE BROTHER is a YA adventure novel about hacker kids who take on the Department of Homeland Security and win back the US Bill of Rights. It’s a book written in the vein of the adventure novels I loved when I was a kid: books that taught me about how the political process worked at the same time as they were teaching me about how science and technology worked. The characters in LITTLE BROTHER deploy real-world technologies that young readers can build and use themselves to make themselves more free: cryptographic tools that protect their privacy, homebrew hidden-camera detectors and so on.

Q: What inspired you to write LITTLE BROTHER?

CD: I worked for many years at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit civil liberties organization headquartered in San Francisco. EFF fights to ensure that the freedoms we enjoy in the real world survive the transition to the digital world --- keeping privacy, free speech, due process, and similar ideals alive on the Internet. I worked in a variety of ways for EFF, from scrapping at standards committees to briefing the FCC to helping to kill a bad UN treaty and replace it with a good one.

Many people seem ready to throw away our freedoms today --- both in the real world and the digital world --- to “fight terrorism.” Fighting terrorism has become the catch-all excuse for every pipsqueak authoritarian with an axe to grind. It’s the reason we get busted for taking pictures in the subway, carrying a bottle of medicine onto a plane, or objecting to being fingerprinted and forced to show ID just to move around the world.

Today’s kids are the most surveilled, most controlled generation in the history of the world. There’s no public space left for kids to play in unregarded, and every place they find that can be theirs is shut down or demonized as a pedophile’s dream come true --- this despite the minuscule, infinitesimal proportion of attacks on children that come from strangers they meet on the Internet.

Walt Disney World has instituted mandatory fingerprinting for visitors to the park. The last time I was there, I argued with the guy at the turnstile about this. A little kid standing behind me piped up and said, “No no, you have to be fingerprinted, we all have to be fingerprinted.” It froze the blood in my veins. It’s one thing to worry that Disney is training our kids to want to be little princesses or whatnot, but that’s a pale shadow of my concern that Disney will train my daughter --- who will be born in January! --- to grow up to be a happy citizen of a police state.

Q: What are some of the timely issues explored in LITTLE BROTHER--- and/or what issues will people find especially compelling?

CD: LITTLE BROTHER is one of those SF novels that “predicts the present,” in that I took a bunch of stuff that was bubbling under the surface of the world today and made it front and center of my world of tomorrow. There’s a whole lot in there about using censor-busting tools that allow kids to access the free Internet; about hacking game consoles to allow you to do stuff with them that the manufacturer never imagined, about fighting for the security that comes from being free --- even some pretty chilling material about waterboarding.

Q: What message, if any, do you want people to take away from LITTLE BROTHER?

CD: The most important message is the one that Benjamin Franklin gave to us in the eighteenth century: “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” The freedom to be left alone; to open, understand, and improve your tools; to organize; to socialize --- these freedoms are all under unprecedented assault today, all over the world. The next generation of kids could grow up thinking that this is normal. That would be the worst disaster of all.

Q: Can you talk about some of the practices or gadgets from LITTLE BROTHER that exist --- or almost exist --- right now?

CD: LITTLE BROTHER is chockablock with real-world technologies: facial recognition systems, CCTVs, gait recognition, data-mining, RFID cards, and snoopers. Take the increasingly ubiquitous RFID --- radio frequency ID --- tag. These are the “contactless” chips that let you board the subway or drive through a toll-booth by authenticating yourself wirelessly.

These tools are more than a convenient way of authenticating yourself, though: they’re also a way of identifying yourself. The guy who takes your coins at the toll plaza doesn’t know who you are, just that you paid --- same with the collector you show your transfer to. But with RFID, your personal identity is now logged along with the time, your destination, and so on.

What’s more, these things can be read at a distance, without your knowing it. Hackers at DefCon in Las Vegas have read these cards from forty feet away! Bad guys, snoops, and spies can identify you as you move through time and space, building up a detailed picture of all your movements. They’re even putting these things in US passports (wait for Hollywood movies in which terrorists build bombs that are triggered by US passports).

All this data makes bigger haystacks in which it becomes harder and harder to identify the needles --- the real terrorist threats. Remember, the FBI had everything they needed to bust the 9/11 hijackers weeks before the planes went down, but they didn’t know it because the useful information was buried under mountains of useless stuff. The useless mountains are growing --- and so is the chance that you’ll be mistakenly identified as a terrorist and lose your freedom in large or small ways.

© Copyright 2008, Tor Teen, an imprint of Tor Books. All right reserved.