A teenage hacker. A major terrorist attack in San Francisco. The Department of Homeland Security clamping down on individual freedoms under the guise of ‘safety.’ This is where Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother starts. Published in 2008, it wisely presages some of the events of today, with profiling (read Muslim Ban), demand to surrender pass codes of personal devices, and the propagation of fear among the masses.

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After a bridge is blown up in San Fransisco, 17-year-old Marcus, otherwise known as “w1n5t0n,” finds himself imprisoned by the DHS as a suspected terrorist along with some of his friends. He is held for days, interrogated mercilessly, and, for all intents and purposes, tortured in an attempt to get him to cooperate.

After his release, Marcus is left angered and traumatized, but with a new sense of purpose. With his specialized knowledge of computing and hacking, he is in a unique position to overwhelm the old state with the very devices they’ve attempted to utilize to keep track of everyone. Armed with a hacked Xbox and the slogan “Never trust anyone over 25,” Marcus becomes an unwitting leader of a rebellion of young people.

Two passages stand out to me in this book. The first is a quote from the Declaration of Independence that Marcus uses during a debate in class to prove a point about the importance of activism in the U.S., showing a disconnect between the principles upon which the nation was founded and the reality of a growing authoritarian system of rule:

“Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

The other passage stands out as one of the most succinct explanations of sensitivity and specificity I’ve seen, emphasizing the “paradox of the false positive” when it comes to “something as stupid as build[ing] an automatic terrorism detector:”

little brother cory doctorow false positive

That is to say, if a test is 99 percent accurate and you test 1 million people for a specific condition (say, the condition of being a terrorist), you will find that 10,000 people have falsely been categorized as terrorists.

This book highlights the power that one kid has (with the help of a few enlightened adults) to affect change in a society that is being run by out-of-touch elders. In my opinion, Little Brother should be required reading for all high schoolers.

 

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