His Writing Radicalized Young Hackers. Now He Wants to Redeem Them
Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother series has been a young-adult sci-fi bible for teen hacktivists. But with the latest and darkest book in the trilogy, it’s all grown up.
FROM WIRED MAGAZINE
SET THE FIRST and last books in Cory Doctorow’s epic, three-book Little Brother cypherpunk saga side by side, and they read a bit like a creative writing master class on telling two starkly opposite stories from the same prompt. The common premise: Islamist terrorists bomb the Bay Bridge. Thousands die. The Department of Homeland responds by turning San Francisco into a fascist, total-surveillance police state. The protagonist, a digitally gifted, troublemaking teen, must decide how to respond.
In the first Little Brother installment, which Doctorow published in 2008, the answer seemed righteously inevitable: The hero uses his hacker skills to fight back. Specifically, he and his plucky hacker friends figure out how to jailbreak their Xboxes and channel the video game consoles’ encrypted comms over the Tor network to create Xnet, a cheap, anonymous, surveillance-proof system for organizing protest and foiling the panopticon cops by injecting false data into their totalitarian schemes.
In Doctorow’s third work in the series, publishing this week and titled Attack Surface, the protagonist takes an altogether different path. And while that path threads through the same alternate-world timeline of events, it’s tinted with all the shades of gray that the world has accumulated in the dozen long years since the series’ first, wide-eyed story.
This time the hero—or antihero, more like—instead chooses to go work for the DHS. After all, she’s angry, itching to use her prowess in digital exploitation, and someone needs to help hunt these terrorists who actually knows what she’s doing. To get the job, she breaks into her friends’ Xnet system—it was riddled with hackable bugs, of course—and uses information cascade modeling to identify all of the resistance’s leaders, then serves up the map to the authorities. Not long after, she swaps her DHS job for a contract position in Iraq, where she uses those same tricks to identify insurgent leaders, hack their devices, find them, and target them for killing.
The money is very good, and it keeps getting better. She’s transferred to Mexico City, switches contractors, and becomes accustomed to flying first-class, room service in Japanese-themed hotels, and aged scotch on the corporate account. Eventually she finds her employer is offering her exploitation skills to a kleptocratic Eastern European government that’s using them to suppress a “color revolution”-style movement. To assuage her guilt, she starts helping the dissidents, too, building surveillance systems by day and advising idealistic young rebels on how to defeat them by night—even while knowing that they’re almost certainly doomed, that the technological terrain has put them at an impossible disadvantage.