The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

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Little Brother Debate Map

Here’s the security vs. privacy debate map we constructed in class on Monday. Click on the image to zoom in.

Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself

In Little Brother, Marcus, the main character, frequently argues with his father over the matter of whether we should give up some of our personal freedoms and privacies in order to grant more power to those seeking to prevent harm from threats like terrorism. It’s a difficult debate that I have occasionally had with myself, and I’ve never quite come to a conclusion, but in one of those arguments, Marcus raises a great point: are we really hurting the terrorists by adding security?

The main goal of terrorism is there in the name: terror. They want to scare people– to make them feel unsafe. That’s why their attacks always come in such violent and public forms. One terrorist organization cannot possibly hope to kill each and every citizen of the United States of America, but they could quite possibly make us all fear for our lives.

Marcus’s point is this: by adding more checkpoints, more data mining, more tracking, more security, less privacy, are we really acting against the terrorists? Would you really feel safer if the police considered you a potential terrorist and had eyes, ears, and possibly guns pointed in your direction at all times? If they consider you and everyone you know a suspect, then you yourself might begin to suspect those around you.

Suddenly, everyone you see on the street is a potential murderer.

Suddenly, you aren’t sure if you should eat at a particular restaurant because there aren’t any open seats near the door. What if someone inside started shooting?

Suddenly, you have to think long and hard about accepting a job offer because you would have to take the subway on your commute. Sure, the pay is better, but what if a bomb went off while you were underground?

In an effort to prevent terrorist attacks, law enforcement can inadvertently carry out the end goal of those attacks: terror.


The Cryptography Question of our Time: Surveillance vs. Privacy

Yes, I did in fact take the title from the syllabus.

It is one of the most consequential arguments of the modern world and especially in this country. Towards the end of chapter three and into chapter four of Cory Doctorow’s novel, Little Brother, Marcus, the main protagonist of the story, reveals to the reader that he feels very strongly about his privacy. At this point in the novel, Marcus has been detained by the Department of Homeland Security and is being interrogated by the “severe haircut lady”. She demands that Marcus unlock his phone, to which Marcus responds, “I’ve got the right to my privacy” (49). He makes it very clear that his privacy is of utmost importance to him even despite constant threats and continual interrogations.

Marcus goes on to explain the importance of privacy in his own life and how having even just a little part of his life completely hidden is essential for every person. He uses the analogy of privately going to the bathroom or privately being naked as a way to show that having things only for yourself is actually in fact healthy. The culmination of his argument is this: “It’s not about doing something shameful. It’s about doing something private. It’s about your life belonging to you” (57).

This particular passage stuck with me because of its particular relevance, especially in this course. While many believe in giving up some privacy in exchange for security, Marcus presents the flip side of the conversation and is adamant about making sure his security is his own, something that every human being deserves as a basic right. And while I may not entirely agree with his argument, it gives light to what other people have concerns in regards to the problem at hand.

Young, Dumb, But Not Scum

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.

Little Brother’s Marcus and The Doctrines of Terrorism

Before Marcus holds the first alternative/video-game-generated/XNet run press conference the world has ever seen after the gross media bias taking place in response to the Don’t Trust “riot,” Ange gives him this pep talk—“If you want to really screw the DHS, you have to embarrass them…your only weapon is your ability is to make them look like morons.”

Although perhaps a little simplified in this instance, the influence of one common adage is pervasive—How do you fight a war against terrorism, a fight against ideology? You introduce better ideas.

The influence of doctrines on the war on terror such as this one in Little Brother is not surprising, although I will admit, I found it the slightest bit ironic. While plenty of idealists are familiar with the theory of introducing new and better ideas, Doctorow’s main character Marcus turns this theory on its head, instead using his knowledge of the dark web and his impressive ability to mobilize other likeminded young idealists to take a different approach. So how do you, if you are Marcus, fight an ideology (in this case the distorted ideas about privacy by the DHS)? You recruit a brilliant group of internet vigilantes to prove the ideas are wrong by speeding up the process of self-implosion inevitable for the bad ideas. You can spend your whole life trying to spread new, better ideas—the process will be long, tiring, laborious, and might seem absolutely fruitless at times—or you can take a page out of Marcus’s book and sabotage an entire operation to make the bad ideas so present in everyone’s lives that they are unrefutably bad. Although I definitely admit Marcus’s strategy is not the most orthodox of practices, I genuinely admire the guts.

Power of a Test

After the terrorist attack on San Francisco, the Department of Homeland Security ramps up security and surveillance in hopes of catching the people responsible, but instead only manage to inconvenience, detain, and even seriously harm innocent civilians. Marcus explains that the problem with the DHS system is that they’re looking for something too rare in too large a population, resulting in a very large number of false positives.

What Marcus is describing is referred to in statistics as a Type I error – that is, we reject the null hypothesis (the assumption that nothing is abnormal) when the null hypothesis is actually true. In this case, the null hypothesis is “not a terrorist”, and there’s enough suspicious data, the null hypothesis is rejected in favor of flagging the person for investigation. Marcus claims that in order to look for rare things, you need a test that only rejects the null hypothesis at the same rate at which the thing we’re testing for – in this case, terrorists – actually occur. The problem is, there’s also Type II errors. While Type I errors are caused by being too cautious, Type II errors occur when our test “misses” the thing we are actually looking for. When determining how “tough” a test should be, we need to decide how to balance these two risks.

Marcus is advocating for making the system less broad, therefore reducing false positives. However, this increases the risk for false negatives as well. So, which is worse: a false positive or a false negative? That’s a question of expected value, which is based off the probability of a result and its consequences. In this case, the result at one end of the spectrum is the terrorists are caught because of this system, but many innocent people are subject to surveillance and searching. On the other end is that no one is caught because they slip through a timid test, and more people are hurt as a result. Clearly, this can easily turn into a much more complicated debate on the values of time, trust, privacy, and life, so I won’t try to determine what the correct balance is myself. Although it’s easy to describe some aspects of this conflict with numbers, as Marcus did, it just isn’t that simple.

Surveillance = Dehumanization

One of the topics most widely discussed throughout Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is government surveillance. Was it justifiable for the DHS to track the citizens of San Francisco’s every move in the name of national security? An instance where this ethical dilemma came into question occurred on pages 136-138, when Marcus and his father learned that the DHS was closely monitoring ground chatter. Marcus, who was responsible for this spike in chatter, was opposed to the DHS’ involvement with the issue, while his father praised the DHS for their work attempting to catch the “methodical fools.” According to Marcus’ father, in today’s society you must sacrifice some things in order to feel safe, asking his son, “Would you rather have privacy or terrorists?” Marcus on the other hand sees the monitoring as an invasion of privacy, and does not believe that surveillance will amount to the arrest of terrorists.  


I found both Marcus and his father’s arguments extremely interesting and compelling. On one hand, the terrorists who killed thousands of people where still physically free, and potentially able to cause more harm. On the other hand, the constant monitoring has only slowed society, and has created fear throughout the city. Although both arguments are valid, from an ethical standpoint I would have to side with Marcus. The use of algorithms and data-mining to determine the likelihood of a person to be a terrorist is extremely dehumanising. In the US, we have already turned humans into mere digits by using social security numbers to keep track of virtually everything we do. Data-mining, for the purpose of finding criminals, reduces human behavior to simple numbers. We are not computers. This dehumanization allows the government to treat us like statistics. As shown by the book, we go far beyond this assumption. Our behavior is influenced by a range of variables (like emotions), that computers cannot comprehend. 


We the People

“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 to 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.”

This passage shows up multiple times over the course of the novel, but these are not the words of Cory Doctorow. Marcus first recites this quote during a social studies class debate on civil rights their current War on Terror, and then again later during an online press conference he gave to publicize the actions of the XNetters. These words, written in the Declaration of Independence by the founders of our country, are as prevalent in Little Brother as they were in 1776. In the wake of the terrorist attack on their city, with the technology that exists in the book, the citizens of San Francisco are under extreme scrutiny by the Department of Homeland Security. The government decided that in the dire circumstances, its people no longer reserved the right to privacy. But as the nation’s founding document points out, the role of the government should be to maintain both the safety and happiness of the country. The DHS has an obligation to protect Americans which cannot be done without some level of public surveillance, but interrupting thousands of peoples’ daily lives to question their every move in both invasive — and as Marcus later points out with his “False Positive effect” — ineffective. That is why I believe he and his undeclared “followers” are justified in their actions to dismantle the DHS’s efforts. As citizens, it is both their duty and right to take these measures in order to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility…and secure the Blessings of Liberty” for themselves and the rest of the nation when the central government has failed to do so.

A Small Amount of Privacy can be Lost to Feel More Secure

At the Newseum, there is a board that lets people voice their opinion on the privacy versus security debate. The people were told to write down what they would give up to feel safer on a dry erase board. Someone on the board wrote that they would give up some of their privacy. This corresponds with my own beliefs. I think that it is totally fine if the government uses some surveillance techniques. Even though I believe that the government should use surveillance to protect us, they should not be too extreme with the measures that they take. For example, in the novel Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, Marcus’s dad was pulled over multiple times in a single trip even though there were no signs of him being guilty of any crime. This is an example of the government being too extreme with their surveillance methods, I believe that these methods are unnecessary. When the government uses extreme surveillance methods that results in no privacy, everything turns into chaos as shown in Little Brother. There is a loss of trust between the government and civilians. It is the civilian’s jobs to trust that the government will protect them, and it is the government’s job to protect the citizens while not violating all of their privacy.

What do people find important in the debate over security vs privacy?

The question that was asked on this display at the Newseum was similar to the one we were asked on the first day of class. We were asked if we agreed or disagreed with giving up our privacy for more security. This question takes it a step further, and asks specifically what people would give up for that extra security. There were some expected responses that I saw, like “Text messages + phone records”, “Freedom”, and also a few other random answers that didn’t really contribute to the purpose or message of the display. There were two that I saw that stood out though. One was “as much as necessary to feel safe”. The other was the Benjamin Franklin quote, that said “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty or safety”.

These two responses stood out to me because they seem to fall on the two sides of the privacy vs security debate. The first one reminds me of a few of the characters from Little Brother who were on the pro-security side. Characters like Marcus’s dad and Charles has the same mindset as this viewpoint. Marcus’s dad felt okay with complying with anything the DHS said as long as it made him feel like he was safer. If it cost him an extra 2 hours going to and from work, then so be it. Even the hassle of being stopped by police for no reason was not enough to faze him. As long as the DHS was trying to catch terrorists, any violation of privacy was okay.

The other response reminds me of the argument that Marcus, Charles, and Mrs. Andersen had during their class period. Mrs. Andersen said something along the lines of “our founding fathers intended for the constitution to change over time as viewpoints changed”. The Benjamin Franklin quote makes me feel as if this might not be entirely true, or at least not to the extent of what Mrs. Andersen said. I think they expected times to change, but some things were essential to a well-working government, and one of these was respect of the citizens privacy. On the other side, citizens shouldn’t even have to consider giving up their liberties, but if they were given that choice, the founding fathers still believed that their liberty is more important.


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