One of the recurring themes of Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother is the trade-off between privacy and security. In the wake of a devastating terror attack, the city of San Francisco is effectively transformed into a police state, with the each person being monitored day in and day out. Marcus, the protagonist, and his fellow youth ultimately grow disillusioned with this kind of treatment, going as far as to proclaim not to trust anyone over 25 or 30, as the older generation seems to condone and even accept this new way of life.
This dynamic of young versus old paralleling the dynamic of privacy versus security is indicative of another kind of societal dynamic: idealism versus pragmatism. For Marcus, Jolu, and Ange, the right to privacy is more than merely hiding information: it’s peace of mind, the confidence that deeply personal isn’t subject to scrutiny by a third party, that one’s suspect yet benign information is hidden from prying eyes. However, the government views the safety blanket of privacy in a different light: as a cloak to mask malicious and malevolent intent. For the government, the idea of protecting the citizenry demands the intrusion of privacy, and those in power subscribe to such an ideology.
While I do believe the lengths to which the government in Little Brother prove to be quite extreme, for the government to facilitate the protection of the people, a degree of invasion of privacy is to be expected. In that sense, the government of Little Brother, with its all seeing eye, is caught in a double-bind. One one hand, as a government, the burden of protecting the citizenry falls on its shoulders. Likewise, in pursuit of these goals, it must also ensure that justice is delivered appropriately, minimizing false positives to the best of their ability. Under this framework, the government of Little Brother still proves indefensible in its blanket prosecutions, but displays a nuance of the debate often ignored. While those above 25 or 30 may seem to condone an severe violation of the right to privacy, many understand that such an action is the result of a government caught in a so-win situation, choosing the wisdom of pragmatism over the hope of idealism.