The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

The Costs of Privacy

Cary Doctorow’s Little Brother tells the story of Marcus Yallow, a high school student who rebels against the Department ofHomeland Security for violating his rights to privacy.  Marcus goes to the extent of creating a new secure Internet, hacking transportation systems, and much more to protect himself and others from the DHS.  I found Chapter 3 and 4 to be most interesting because Doctorow directly questions whether our rights to privacy are more or less important that protecting our country.  The unreal treatment Marcus faces while being interrogated changed my opinion over the topic entirely.  When Marcus was interrogated by the lady, why did Marcus feel so strongly over maintaining his privacy?  At first, I felt Marcus’ innocence was more important, and since he had nothing to hide he should hand over his phone.  I tried to put myself in his position and then realized I would feel uncomfortable if I was forced to hand over my text messages and emails to a random stranger.  Marcus maybe felt that because he was innocent he should continue to refuse to give his phone up.

Our right to privacy is a central theme in Little Brother, and is constantly questioned throughout the novel.  It is this right that has pushed cryptography to even larger extents, including securer methods of sending information on the Internet or keeping your information private entirely.  Surely, Google and Facebook use information for advertisements and other services, however, this is information that I’ve openly displayed to the public.  I have willingly put this information on the Web, knowing that it will not be private anymore.  Should any stranger attempt to access other private information, then my right to privacy has been violated.  In Marcus’ case, he faced the latter situation, and retained his privacy.  Ultimately, Marcus took a stand to end violations of this right, due to one instance of injustice.  As terrorism continues to rise, the government has increased its control over private information through phone taps and keyword tracking.  Should government control continue to increase, the people will have to decide if the costs of retaining privacy are too great.

Image: “Keep Out from Francisco Huguenin Uhlfelder,” by Francisco, Flickr (CC)


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  1. Alberto Perez

    Privacy is something sacred to a person’s freedom. This is why the right to privacy is something emphasized by our founding fathers in the constitution. However, another defining aspect of the constitution was its ability to adapt to changing times. This versatility leads to much grey area over how much change is needed at a given situation. The issue of privacy rights is one of these debates present in Little Brother. Now that a single individual has the ability to do so much more damage to a society compared to previous history, many feel that this right to seemingly unlimited privacy should be modified. In some cases this may be true, but the right of an individual’s privacy must always be safeguarded to a certain point.

  2. pollacmr

    You state that you would want to defend your right to privacy in all situations, including cruel interrogation like Marcus went through, but in reality, the government agents in the novel had good reason to question what Marcus was doing. By refusing to give up his password he made himself look more suspicious. If he knew he wasn’t guilty of anything he should have just let them look through his phone to come to that conclusion. In times of panic and terror, extreme measures must be taken to assure safety, and there were many things pointing to Marcus as a possible suspect. I understand that its about the ‘principle’; its about keeping your privacy no matter what, but it would have been very easy for him to simply prove the government agents wrong and expedite the interrogation process.

  3. Ryan McLaughlin

    I think that there is more to think about when you say that you would be hesitant to hand over your phone if you were in Marcus’ position. I agree with what Michael replied with that the government agents had good reason to want to know about what Marcus was doing in that situation. If you are Marcus, then you would need to realize that as well and just hand over your phone and show you are innocent. There was a major terror attack and there is a chance you were involved, so you should do whatever you can to prove your innocent. I think that an individual’s privacy should be respected at almost all times, but there are exceptions. For example, handing over your phone to a government agent when there is a chance you were involved in a terror attack is completely understandable in my opinion. On the other hand, in times of peace privacy should be respected unless there is irrefutable evidence that makes it likely you are doing something that risks the lives of many people.

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