I got tired of people savvying me about the revelations of NSA surveillance and asking why anyone would care about secret, intrusive spying, so I wrote a new Guardian column about it, "The NSA's Prism: why we should care."
We're bad at privacy because the consequences of privacy disclosures are separated by a lot of time and space from the disclosures themselves. It's like trying to get good at cricket by swinging the bat, closing your eyes before you see where the ball is headed, and then being told, months later, somewhere else, where the ball went. So of course we're bad at privacy: almost all our privacy disclosures do no harm, and some of them cause grotesque harm, but when this happens, it happens so far away from the disclosure that we can't learn from it.
You should care about privacy because privacy isn't secrecy. I know what you do in the toilet, but that doesn't mean you don't want to close the door when you go in the stall.
You should care about privacy because if the data says you've done something wrong, then the person reading the data will interpret everything else you do through that light. Naked Citizens, a short, free documentary, documents several horrifying cases of police being told by computers that someone might be up to something suspicious, and thereafter interpreting everything they learn about that suspect as evidence of wrongdoing. For example, when a computer programmer named David Mery entered a tube station wearing a jacket in warm weather, an algorithm monitoring the CCTV brought him to the attention of a human operator as someone suspicious. When Mery let a train go by without boarding, the operator decided it was alarming behaviour. The police arrested him, searched him, asked him to explain every scrap of paper in his flat. A doodle consisting of random scribbles was characterised as a map of the tube station. Though he was never convicted of a crime, Mery is still on file as a potential terrorist eight years later, and can't get a visa to travel abroad. Once a computer ascribes suspiciousness to someone, everything else in that person's life becomes sinister and inexplicable.
The NSA's Prism: why we should care
Neil Gaiman's taken over the Guardian's Books Podcast, and had me and agent Jonny Geller and Henry Volans, head of Faber Digital, in the studio for a wide-ranging and awfully fun podcast. The first 20 minutes are a fascinating look at weird London by Damien Walter, and then we kick off with the discussion.
The UK edition of my novel Pirate Cinema hits stores officially today! Tell your friends!
When Trent McCauley's obsession for making movies by reassembling footage from popular films causes his home s internet to be cut off, it nearly destroys his family. Shamed, Trent runs away to London. A new bill threatens to criminalize even harmless internet creativity. Things look bad, but the powers-that-be haven't entirely reckoned with the power of a gripping movie to change people's minds...
The Institute for the Future commissioned me to write a story about the "Internet of Things," and I wrote them a piece called By His Things Will You Know Him, about death, networks, and computers. It's part of an anthology called "An Aura of Familiarity: Visions from the Coming Age of Networked Matter," which we'll be publishing on Boing Boing in the following weeks. The stories to come are from great authors including Rudy Rucker, Ramez Naam, Bruce Sterling, Madeline Ashby, and Warren Ellis.
I read the story aloud for my podcast last week, and have been awaiting the chance to publish it -- now that it's live, here you are!
I recorded an interview with the PRI show The World yesterday about Orwell, Huxley and the NSA. It came out well, I think.
Boys from Brett Wierzbicki's English class at Cathedral Preparatory Seminary in Queens, NY have been reading my novel Little Brother and Brett gave them the option of doing a book-remix instead of a traditional book-report. All told, they produced seven absolutely terrific remixes of the book, and they were good enough to send them all along for me to share:
Joel's chapter: Joel wrote his own ending for the book, describing the jail-time Marcus served between the final chapter and the epilogue:
“Marcus Yallow.” That was the prison guard, who was fair to everyone, calling my name for dinner. You might have forgotten who I am, which is okay because it has been a while. I am Marcus Yallow, who has been jailed for trying to ruin the DHS, who took over San Francisco when the terrorist attacks occurred on the Golden Gate Bridge. Throughout the time between my first jail time and this one, my mission was to bring down the DHS. What makes my blood boil was the severe haircut lady getting off even though she was part of the reason why I rebelled against the department. So look, I in jail but she got off.
We Didn't Start the Xnet: Tyler and Eric made their own remix of "We Didn't Start the Fire" with a Little Brother theme (see above)!
Eduardo's remix: Eduardo wrote a five-page alternate chapter for the scene following the bombing of the Bay Bridge:
I heard rumbling underground, the first thing that came to mind was the train passing underneath, I felt Darryl tapping me very hard on my shoulder.
“Look!” he said pointing his finder outside towards the street. “Look Van, look Jolu, why are they all running?” he said.
While he was talking I knew that he was very nervous because his voice was starting to crack. I began to worry because never in my life have I seen anything like this since I've been living here. We all gaped as we saw everyone running as if a madman was running wildly with a gun. I heard screaming and people yelling get out, get out, the streets were stentorian. The thing that really got me shaking was when I saw helicopters hovering over the buildings, they were very close to the roofs as if trying to take a closer glimpse of the area.
JuanMario's sequel: Juan Mario wrote his own sequel to the story, set two years after Marcus's arrest:
It’s been two years since X-net and the incident with the DHS. I was released from Juvenile prison in November of last year, it was hard finding a job after being locked up and being the center of media attention for a whole year. I had my parents and friends to help and support me though. It took me a while to find a job, but who wants to hire an ex-terrorist that started a a riot in San Fransico? Not many would.
Remember my teacher Ms.Galvez at Caesar Chavez high? Well, after she got replaced by the DHS, she started a little book store in the heart of the city, and yes she hired me in January. Its been seven months, I’ve been saving up for college tuition. She pays me fairly well $12 an hour eight hours a day, five days a week. Thats a total of $106 a day, $530 a week, and $2120 a month. Not bad for an ex-con huh?
It was the of June 2014. I was leaving work at 5pm. Joseph and Julia were checking in. Ange and I were leaving, I was waiting outside while Ange was in the restroom, when Joseph walked out the store with Ange. “Where are you going Joe? Don’t you work now?” I asked. He replied, “Don’t worry man Julia is going to cover for me I got something to take care of, and my aunt Galvez won’t fire me, I’m her beloved nephew.”
Sean's alternate ending: Sean wrote his own ending to the book!
“We have found our target,” said Charles, an officer in the DHS.
“Perfect! No more hacking!” cried Al who is Charles’ partner.
“Listen, you let me go you old jerks, or else you will have more trouble on your hands,” exclaimed Marcus.
“Yeah, yeah, tell it to the judge,” laughed Al.
“That is fine, your choice, but remember, you will feel the heat later,” said Marcus confidently.
Thomasz P's song: a Little-Brother-themed set of lyrics for "The Saga Begins," by Weird Al (itself a parody of "The Day the Music Died")
In the not so distant future,
In the city of San Francisco,
Terrorists had launched an attack,
While Marcus and friends were playing a game,
And called soldiers to them,
Hoping to get aid for his pal.
Their response, it was a shocker.
Hunter's video game: Hunter specced out a Little Brother video game called "Rise of the DHS (Rated 'T' for Teen)"
Prologue (The beginning cut-scene):
Everything is dark, and you’re breathing very heavily because you have a bag over your head and can’t see where you are. Soon enough, you realize that you’ve been put on a ship! When you depart, you recognize that you’re on “Treasure Island” and the people who have beaten and captured you are Americans; not terrorists! You are questioned and tortured for several days and are only allowed to leave when your captors feel they have questioned you after enough torture. When you have finally “snapped” and begged not to be taken back to your dirty cell, you are dropped off on the outskirts of San Francisco with your friends who have also been taken into questioning by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). You are given back your cell phone which is your very first piece of equipment collected in the game, and you realize that one of your friends, Darryl, is not with you. Before you can ask the soldiers where he is, they quickly turn around and drive away. Leaving you in the dust with your two other friends (Jolu and Van), you all start crying over the loss of a life-long friend as you make your way back into the city. You and your friends then have coffee and try to make sense out of what happened during the past week. It is here where you, personally, make a vow to get revenge against the DHS and more importantly, save Darryl. However, you and your friends don’t make your experience in captivity public because it could interfere with the plan of revenge.
I'm delighted to announce that Chariho High School in Wood River Junction, RI, has chosen my novel Little Brother for its One School/One Book program. Above is a video I recorded for the students; here's a press release [PDF] from Chariho:
FOR THE FIRST TIME, Chariho Regional High School’s Summer Reading Program is One School - One Book: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow has been chosen for the Chariho Regional High School’s One School – One Book 2013 Summer Reading Program. Programming events will kick off as students are introduced to the novel through a video message from Little Brother author Cory Doctorow.
In light of current events, Little Brother will provide Chariho students and staff with a sizzling summer tale that is both timely and thought-provoking. The novel follows in the tradition of novels such as 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 by jolting its readers with a reality that is often overlooked or passively accepted. The themes in Little Brother bring current social and political issues alive and challenge readers to question, reflect, and take action. As a school-wide reading event, Little Brother will generate great discussions among students and staff and will have significant cross-curricular connections.
This is a good year for Little Brother; it's also the One City/One Book pick for San Francisco.
I've just signed up for the Clarion Write-a-Thon, an annual fundraiser that brings in money to run the non-profit Clarion Writers Workshop, a kind of bootcamp for science fiction writers held every year at UCSD's La Jolla Campus. I'm a Clarion grad, volunteer board-member, and I'm back teaching the program this year, so I guess you could say I believe in it pretty strongly. Here's my profile on the Write-a-Thon, should you wish to sponsor the story I'm working on (it's a short called "The Man Who Sold the Moon," about robotic 3D printers that sinter lunar regolith), and if you're working on something of your own, you can sign up and get your friends to sponsor you, too!
My latest Guardian column is "Data protection in the EU: the certainty of uncertainty," a look at the absurdity of having privacy rules that describes some data-sets as "anonymous" and others as "pseudonymous," while computer scientists in the real world are happily re-identifying "anonymous" data-sets with techniques that grow more sophisticated every day. The EU is being lobbied as never before on its new data protection rules, mostly by US IT giants, and the new rules have huge loopholes for "anonymous" and "pseudonymous" data that are violently disconnected from the best modern computer science theories. Either the people proposing these categories don't really care about privacy, or they don't know enough about it to be making up the rules -- either way, it's a bad scene.
Since the mid-noughties, de-anonymising has become a kind of full-contact sport for computer scientists, who keep blowing anonymisation schemes out of the water with clever re-identifying tricks. A recent paper in Nature Scientific Reports showed how the "anonymised" data from a European phone company (likely one in Belgium) could be re-identified with 95% accuracy, given only four points of data about each person (with only two data-points, more than half the users in the set could be re-identified).
Some will say this doesn't matter. They'll say that privacy is dead, or irrelevant, or unimportant. If you agree, remember this: the reason anonymisation and pseudonymisation are being contemplated in the General Data Protection Regulation is because its authors say that privacy is important, and worth preserving. They are talking about anonymising data-sets because they believe that anonymisation will protect privacy – and that means that they're saying, implicitly, privacy is worth preserving. If that's policy's goal, then the policy should pursue it in ways that conform to reality as we understand it.
Indeed, the whole premise of "Big Data" is at odds with the idea that data can be anonymised. After all, Big Data promises that with very large data-sets, subtle relationships can be teased out. In the world of re-identifying, they talk about "sparse data" approaches to de-anonymisation. Though most of your personal traits are shared with many others, there are some things about you that are less commonly represented in the set – maybe the confluence of your reading habits and your address; maybe your city of birth in combination with your choice of cars.
Data protection in the EU: the certainty of uncertainty
I am as pleased as is humanly possible to announce that the San Francisco Public Library system has chosen my novel Little Brother for its "One City/One Book" program, the first ever young adult novel to be so honored by the SFPL. I'll be coming to San Francisco in late September to visit the city's libraries and present the book. Thank you, San Francisco -- and thank you especially, SFPL!