Corey Doctorow’s novel Little Brother is a rousing look at a society where security has become dominant over privacy and liberty. In the aftermath of a terrorist attack on San Francisco, Marcus Yallow sparks and leads an underground movement to take back the rights of citizens from an oppressive police-state government.
I’ve read Little Brother before, but the issues and solutions regarding online security always fascinate me. The problem of the increased levels of encrypted traffic standing out particularly interested me. In the novel’s universe, an agent monitoring web traffic and noticing a large amount of encrypted information passing to a single machine compared to the relatively larger number of people with unencrypted data would have his or her suspicion aroused. In some investigations, you don’t need to know what someone is hiding, only that they are hiding something. However, this also brings to mind the possibility that a large amount of encrypted traffic from a computer doesn’t always imply that illegal activity is occurring. Just as walking down the street with your hands in your coat pockets doesn’t imply you’re hiding drugs, stolen goods, or a weapon.
A statistically significant outlier might be an individual with malicious intent. But it also might just be one errant but innocent data point. The beginning of chapter 8 mentions the histograms and Bayesian analysis being used to find abnormal behavior. These were “not guilty people, but people with secrets.” Privacy and the ability to keep some aspects of one’s life out of the public eye are pretty much inalienable natural rights. Secrecy is an integral part of keeping ourselves normal, so it makes no sense to see a desire for privacy as statistically abnormal.