Little Brother – Chapter 9

The following chapter from Cory Doctorow's book Little Brother is used with permission via a license (details at end). Please support the author by buying his book (click the image below).

Little_Brother

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Chapter 9

He was so angry I thought he was going to pop. You know I said I'd only seen him lose his cool rarely? That night, he lost it more than he ever had.

"You wouldn't believe it. This cop, he was like eighteen years old and he kept saying, 'But sir, why were you in Berkeley yesterday if your client is in Mountain View?' I kept explaining to him that I teach at Berkeley and then he'd say, 'I thought you were a consultant,' and we'd start over again. It was like some kind of sitcom where the cops have been taken over by the stupidity ray.

"What's worse was he kept insisting that I'd been in Berkeley today as well, and I kept saying no, I hadn't been, and he said I had been. Then he showed me my FasTrak billing and it said I'd driven the San Mateo bridge three times that day!

"That's not all," he said, and drew in a breath that let me know he was really steamed. "They had information about where I'd been, places that didn't have a toll plaza. They'd been polling my pass just on the street, at random. And it was wrong! Holy crap, I mean, they're spying on us all and they're not even competent!"

I'd drifted down into the kitchen as he railed there, and now I was watching him from the doorway. Mom met my eye and we both raised our eyebrows as if to say, Who's going to say 'I told you so' to him? I nodded at her. She could use her spousular powers to nullify his rage in a way that was out of my reach as a mere filial unit.

"Drew," she said, and grabbed him by the arm to make him stop stalking back and forth in the kitchen, waving his arms like a street-preacher.

"What?" he snapped.

"I think you owe Marcus an apology." She kept her voice even and level. Dad and I are the spazzes in the household -- Mom's a total rock.

Dad looked at me. His eyes narrowed as he thought for a minute. "All right," he said at last. "You're right. I was talking about competent surveillance. These guys were total amateurs. I'm sorry, son," he said. "You were right. That was ridiculous." He stuck his hand out and shook my hand, then gave me a firm, unexpected hug.

"God, what are we doing to this country, Marcus? Your generation deserves to inherit something better than this." When he let me go, I could see the deep wrinkles in his face, lines I'd never noticed.

I went back up to my room and played some Xnet games. There was a good multiplayer thing, a clockwork pirate game where you had to quest every day or two to wind up your whole crew's mainsprings before you could go plundering and pillaging again. It was the kind of game I hated but couldn't stop playing: lots of repetitive quests that weren't all that satisfying to complete, a little bit of player-versus-player combat (scrapping to see who would captain the ship) and not that many cool puzzles that you had to figure out. Mostly, playing this kind of game made me homesick for Harajuku Fun Madness, which balanced out running around in the real world, figuring out online puzzles, and strategizing with your team.

But today it was just what I needed. Mindless entertainment.

My poor dad.

I'd done that to him. He'd been happy before, confident that his tax dollars were being spent to keep him safe. I'd destroyed that confidence. It was false confidence, of course, but it had kept him going. Seeing him now, miserable and broken, I wondered if it was better to be clear-eyed and hopeless or to live in a fool's paradise. That shame -- the shame I'd felt since I gave up my passwords, since they'd broken me -- returned, leaving me listless and wanting to just get away from myself.

My character was a swabbie on the pirate ship Zombie Charger, and he'd wound down while I'd been offline. I had to IM all the other players on my ship until I found one willing to wind me up. That kept me occupied. I liked it, actually. There was something magic about a total stranger doing you a favor. And since it was the Xnet, I knew that all the strangers were friends, in some sense.

> Where u located?

The character who wound me up was called Lizanator, and it was female, though that didn't mean that it was a girl. Guys had some weird affinity for playing female characters.

> San Francisco

I said.

> No stupe, where you located in San Fran?

> Why, you a pervert?

That usually shut down that line of conversation. Of course every gamespace was full of pedos and pervs, and cops pretending to be pedo- and perv-bait (though I sure hoped there weren't any cops on the Xnet!). An accusation like that was enough to change the subject nine out of ten times.

> Mission? Potrero Hill? Noe? East Bay?

> Just wind me up k thx?

She stopped winding.

> You scared?

> Safe -- why do you care?

> Just curious

I was getting a bad vibe off her. She was clearly more than just curious. Call it paranoia. I logged off and shut down my Xbox.

#

Dad looked at me over the table the next morning and said, "It looks like it's going to get better, at least." He handed me a copy of the Chronicle open to the third page.

> A Department of Homeland Security spokesman has confirmed that the San Francisco office has requested a 300 percent budget and personnel increase from DC

What?

> Major General Graeme Sutherland, the commanding officer for Northern California DHS operations, confirmed the request at a press conference yesterday, noting that a spike in suspicious activity in the Bay Area prompted the request. "We are tracking a spike in underground chatter and activity and believe that saboteurs are deliberately manufacturing false security alerts to undermine our efforts."

My eyes crossed. No freaking way.

> "These false alarms are potentially 'radar chaff' intended to disguise real attacks. The only effective way of combatting them is to step up staffing and analyst levels so that we can fully investigate every lead."

> Sutherland noted the delays experienced all over the city were "unfortunate" and committed to eliminating them.

I had a vision of the city with four or five times as many DHS enforcers, brought in to make up for my own stupid ideas. Van was right. The more I fought them, the worse it was going to get.

Dad pointed at the paper. "These guys may be fools, but they're methodical fools. They'll just keep throwing resources at this problem until they solve it. It's tractable, you know. Mining all the data in the city, following up on every lead. They'll catch the terrorists."

I lost it. "Dad! Are you listening to yourself? They're talking about investigating practically every person in the city of San Francisco!"

"Yeah," he said, "that's right. They'll catch every alimony cheat, every dope dealer, every dirt-bag and every terrorist. You just wait. This could be the best thing that ever happened to this country."

"Tell me you're joking," I said. "I beg you. You think that that's what they intended when they wrote the Constitution? What about the Bill of Rights?"

"The Bill of Rights was written before data-mining," he said. He was awesomely serene, convinced of his rightness. "The right to freedom of association is fine, but why shouldn't the cops be allowed to mine your social network to figure out if you're hanging out with gangbangers and terrorists?"

"Because it's an invasion of my privacy!" I said.

"What's the big deal? Would you rather have privacy or terrorists?"

Agh. I hated arguing with my dad like this. I needed a coffee. "Dad, come on. Taking away our privacy isn't catching terrorists: it's just inconveniencing normal people."

"How do you know it's not catching terrorists?"

"Where are the terrorists they've caught?"

"I'm sure we'll see arrests in good time. You just wait."

"Dad, what the hell has happened to you since last night? You were ready to go nuclear on the cops for pulling you over --"

"Don't use that tone with me, Marcus. What's happened since last night is that I've had the chance to think it over and to read this." He rattled his paper. "The reason they caught me is that the bad guys are actively jamming them. They need to adjust their techniques to overcome the jamming. But they'll get there. Meanwhile the occasional road stop is a small price to pay. This isn't the time to be playing lawyer about the Bill of Rights. This is the time to make some sacrifices to keep our city safe."

I couldn't finish my toast. I put the plate in the dishwasher and left for school. I had to get out of there.

#

The Xnetters weren't happy about the stepped up police surveillance, but they weren't going to take it lying down. Someone called a phone-in show on KQED and told them that the police were wasting their time, that we could monkeywrench the system faster than they could untangle it. The recording was a top Xnet download that night.

"This is California Live and we're talking to an anonymous caller at a payphone in San Francisco. He has his own information about the slowdowns we've been facing around town this week. Caller, you're on the air."

"Yeah, yo, this is just the beginning, you know? I mean, like, we're just getting started. Let them hire a billion pigs and put a checkpoint on every corner. We'll jam them all! And like, all this crap about terrorists? We're not terrorists! Give me a break, I mean, really! We're jamming up the system because we hate the Homeland Security, and because we love our city. Terrorists? I can't even spell jihad. Peace out."

He sounded like an idiot. Not just the incoherent words, but also his gloating tone. He sounded like a kid who was indecently proud of himself. He was a kid who was indecently proud of himself.

The Xnet flamed out over this. Lots of people thought he was an idiot for calling in, while others thought he was a hero. I worried that there was probably a camera aimed at the payphone he'd used. Or an arphid reader that might have sniffed his Fast Pass. I hoped he'd had the smarts to wipe his fingerprints off the quarter, keep his hood up, and leave all his arphids at home. But I doubted it. I wondered if he'd get a knock on the door sometime soon.

The way I knew when something big had happened on Xnet was that I'd suddenly get a million emails from people who wanted M1k3y to know about the latest haps. It was just as I was reading about Mr Can't-Spell-Jihad that my mailbox went crazy. Everyone had a message for me -- a link to a livejournal on the Xnet -- one of the many anonymous blogs that were based on the Freenet document publishing system that was also used by Chinese democracy advocates.

> Close call

> We were jamming at the Embarcadero tonite and goofing around giving everyone a new car key or door key or Fast Pass or FasTrak, tossing around a little fake gunpowder. There were cops everywhere but we were smarter than them; we're there pretty much every night and we never get caught.

> So we got caught tonight. It was a stupid mistake we got sloppy we got busted. It was an undercover who caught my pal and then got the rest of us. They'd been watching the crowd for a long time and they had one of those trucks nearby and they took four of us in but missed the rest.

> The truck was JAMMED like a can of sardines with every kind of person, old young black white rich poor all suspects, and there were two cops trying to ask us questions and the undercovers kept bringing in more of us. Most people were trying to get to the front of the line to get through questioning so we kept on moving back and it was like hours in there and really hot and it was getting more crowded not less.

> At like 8PM they changed shifts and two new cops came in and bawled out the two cops who were there all like wtf? aren't you doing anything here. They had a real fight and then the two old cops left and the new cops sat down at their desks and whispered to each other for a while.

> Then one cop stood up and started shouting EVERYONE JUST GO HOME JESUS CHRIST WE'VE GOT BETTER THINGS TO DO THAN BOTHER YOU WITH MORE QUESTIONS IF YOU'VE DONE SOMETHING WRONG JUST DON'T DO IT AGAIN AND LET THIS BE A WARNING TO YOU ALL.

> A bunch of the suits got really pissed which was HILARIOUS because I mean ten minutes before they were buggin about being held there and now they were wicked pissed about being let go, like make up your minds!

> We split fast through and got out and came home to write this. There are undercovers everywhere, believe. If you're jamming, be open-eyed and get ready to run when problems happen. If you get caught try to wait it out they're so busy they'll maybe just let you go.

> We made them that busy! All those people in that truck were there because we'd jammed them. So jam on!

I felt like I was going to throw up. Those four people -- kids I'd never met -- they nearly went away forever because of something I'd started.

Because of something I'd told them to do. I was no better than a terrorist.

#

The DHS got their budget requisition approved. The President went on TV with the Governor to tell us that no price was too high for security. We had to watch it the next day in school at assembly. My Dad cheered. He'd hated the President since the day he was elected, saying he wasn't any better than the last guy and the last guy had been a complete disaster, but now all he could do was talk about how decisive and dynamic the new guy was.

"You have to take it easy on your father," Mom said to me one night after I got home from school. She'd been working from home as much as possible. Mom's a freelance relocation specialist who helps British people get settled in in San Francisco. The UK High Commission pays her to answer emails from mystified British people across the country who are totally confused by how freaky we Americans are. She explains Americans for a living, and she said that these days it was better to do that from home, where she didn't have to actually see any Americans or talk to them.

I don't have any illusions about Britain. America may be willing to trash its Constitution every time some Jihadist looks cross-eyed at us, but as I learned in my ninth-grade Social Studies independent project, the Brits don't even have a Constitution. They've got laws there that would curl the hair on your toes: they can put you in jail for an entire year if they're really sure that you're a terrorist but don't have enough evidence to prove it. Now, how sure can they be if they don't have enough evidence to prove it? How'd they get that sure? Did they see you committing terrorist acts in a really vivid dream?

And the surveillance in Britain makes America look like amateur hour. The average Londoner is photographed 500 times a day, just walking around the streets. Every license plate is photographed at every corner in the country. Everyone from the banks to the public transit company is enthusiastic about tracking you and snitching on you if they think you're remotely suspicious.

But Mom didn't see it that way. She'd left Britain halfway through high school and she'd never felt at home here, no matter that she'd married a boy from Petaluma and raised a son here. To her, this was always the land of barbarians, and Britain would always be home.

"Mom, he's just wrong. You of all people should know that. Everything that makes this country great is being flushed down the toilet and he's going along with it. Have you noticed that they haven't caught any terrorists? Dad's all like, 'We need to be safe,' but he needs to know that most of us don't feel safe. We feel endangered all the time."

"I know this all, Marcus. Believe me, I'm not a fan of what's been happening to this country. But your father is --" She broke off. "When you didn't come home after the attacks, he thought --"

She got up and made herself a cup of tea, something she did whenever she was uncomfortable or disconcerted.

"Marcus," she said. "Marcus, we thought you were dead. Do you understand that? We were mourning you for days. We were imagining you blown to bits, at the bottom of the ocean. Dead because some bastard decided to kill hundreds of strangers to make some point."

That sank in slowly. I mean, I understood that they'd been worried. Lots of people died in the bombings -- four thousand was the present estimate -- and practically everyone knew someone who didn't come home that day. There were two people from my school who had disappeared.

"Your father was ready to kill someone. Anyone. He was out of his mind. You've never seen him like this. I've never seen him like it either. He was out of his mind. He'd just sit at this table and curse and curse and curse. Vile words, words I'd never heard him say. One day -- the third day -- someone called and he was sure it was you, but it was a wrong number and he threw the phone so hard it disintegrated into thousands of pieces." I'd wondered about the new kitchen phone.

"Something broke in your father. He loves you. We both love you. You are the most important thing in our lives. I don't think you realize that. Do you remember when you were ten, when I went home to London for all that time? Do you remember?"

I nodded silently.

"We were ready to get a divorce, Marcus. Oh, it doesn't matter why anymore. It was just a bad patch, the kind of thing that happens when people who love each other stop paying attention for a few years. He came and got me and convinced me to come back for you. We couldn't bear the thought of doing that to you. We fell in love again for you. We're together today because of you."

I had a lump in my throat. I'd never known this. No one had ever told me.

"So your father is having a hard time right now. He's not in his right mind. It's going to take some time before he comes back to us, before he's the man I love again. We need to understand him until then."

She gave me a long hug, and I noticed how thin her arms had gotten, how saggy the skin on her neck was. I always thought of my mother as young, pale, rosy-cheeked and cheerful, peering shrewdly through her metal-rim glasses. Now she looked a little like an old woman. I had done that to her. The terrorists had done that to her. The Department of Homeland Security had done that to her. In a weird way, we were all on the same side, and Mom and Dad and all those people we'd spoofed were on the other side.

#

I couldn't sleep that night. Mom's words kept running through my head. Dad had been tense and quiet at dinner and we'd barely spoken, because I didn't trust myself not to say the wrong thing and because he was all wound up over the latest news, that Al Qaeda was definitely responsible for the bombing. Six different terrorist groups had claimed responsibility for the attack, but only Al Qaeda's Internet video disclosed information that the DHS said they hadn't disclosed to anyone.

I lay in bed and listened to a late-night call-in radio show. The topic was sex problems, with this gay guy who I normally loved to listen to, he would give people such raw advice, but good advice, and he was really funny and campy.

Tonight I couldn't laugh. Most of the callers wanted to ask what to do about the fact that they were having a hard time getting busy with their partners ever since the attack. Even on sex-talk radio, I couldn't get away from the topic.

I switched the radio off and heard a purring engine on the street below.

My bedroom is in the top floor of our house, one of the painted ladies. I have a sloping attic ceiling and windows on both sides -- one overlooks the whole Mission, the other looks out into the street in front of our place. There were often cars cruising at all hours of the night, but there was something different about this engine noise.

I went to the street-window and pulled up my blinds. Down on the street below me was a white, unmarked van whose roof was festooned with radio antennas, more antennas than I'd ever seen on a car. It was cruising very slowly down the street, a little dish on top spinning around and around.

As I watched, the van stopped and one of the back doors popped open. A guy in a DHS uniform -- I could spot one from a hundred yards now -- stepped out into the street. He had some kind of handheld device, and its blue glow lit his face. He paced back and forth, first scouting my neighbors, making notes on his device, then heading for me. There was something familiar in the way he walked, looking down --

He was using a wifinder! The DHS was scouting for Xnet nodes. I let go of the blinds and dove across my room for my Xbox. I'd left it up while I downloaded some cool animations one of the Xnetters had made of the President's no-price-too-high speech. I yanked the plug out of the wall, then scurried back to the window and cracked the blind a fraction of an inch.

The guy was looking down into his wifinder again, walking back and forth in front of our house. A moment later, he got back into his van and drove away.

I got out my camera and took as many pictures as I could of the van and its antennas. Then I opened them in a free image-editor called The GIMP and edited out everything from the photo except the van, erasing my street and anything that might identify me.

I posted them to Xnet and wrote down everything I could about the vans. These guys were definitely looking for the Xnet, I could tell.

Now I really couldn't sleep.

Nothing for it but to play wind-up pirates. There'd be lots of players even at this hour. The real name for wind-up pirates was Clockwork Plunder, and it was a hobbyist project that had been created by teenaged death-metal freaks from Finland. It was totally free to play, and offered just as much fun as any of the $15/month services like Ender's Universe and Middle Earth Quest and Discworld Dungeons.

I logged back in and there I was, still on the deck of the Zombie Charger, waiting for someone to wind me up. I hated this part of the game.

> Hey you

I typed to a passing pirate.

> Wind me up?

He paused and looked at me.

> y should i?

> We're on the same team. Plus you get experience points.

What a jerk.

> Where are you located?

> San Francisco

This was starting to feel familiar.

> Where in San Francisco?

I logged out. There was something weird going on in the game. I jumped onto the livejournals and began to crawl from blog to blog. I got through half a dozen before I found something that froze my blood.

Livejournallers love quizzes. What kind of hobbit are you? Are you a great lover? What planet are you most like? Which character from some movie are you? What's your emotional type? They fill them in and their friends fill them in and everyone compares their results. Harmless fun.

But the quiz that had taken over the blogs of the Xnet that night was what scared me, because it was anything but harmless:

  • What's your sex
  • What grade are you in?
  • What school do you go to?
  • Where in the city do you live?

The quizzes plotted the results on a map with colored pushpins for schools and neighborhoods, and made lame recommendations for places to buy pizza and stuff.

But look at those questions. Think about my answers:

  • Male
  • 12
  • Chavez High
  • Potrero Hill

There were only two people in my whole school who matched that profile. Most schools it would be the same. If you wanted to figure out who the Xnetters were, you could use these quizzes to find them all.

That was bad enough, but what was worse was what it implied: someone from the DHS was using the Xnet to get at us. The Xnet was compromised by the DHS.

We had spies in our midst.

#

I'd given Xnet discs to hundreds of people, and they'd done the same. I knew the people I gave the discs to pretty well. Some of them I knew very well. I've lived in the same house all my life and I've made hundreds and hundreds of friends over the years, from people who went to daycare with me to people I played soccer with, people who LARPed with me, people I met clubbing, people I knew from school. My ARG team were my closest friends, but there were plenty of people I knew and trusted enough to hand an Xnet disc to.

I needed them now.

I woke Jolu up by ringing his cell phone and hanging up after the first ring, three times in a row. A minute later, he was up on Xnet and we were able to have a secure chat. I pointed him to my blog-post on the radio vans and he came back a minute later all freaked out.

> You sure they're looking for us?

In response I sent him to the quiz.

> OMG we're doomed

> No it's not that bad but we need to figure out who we can trust

> How?

> That's what I wanted to ask you -- how many people can you totally vouch for like trust them to the ends of the earth?

> Um 20 or 30 or so

> I want to get a bunch of really trustworthy people together and do a key-exchange web of trust thing

Web of trust is one of those cool crypto things that I'd read about but never tried. It was a nearly foolproof way to make sure that you could talk to the people you trusted, but that no one else could listen in. The problem is that it requires you to physically meet with the people in the web at least once, just to get started.

> I get it sure. That's not bad. But how you going to get everyone together for the key-signing?

> That's what I wanted to ask you about -- how can we do it without getting busted?

Jolu typed some words and erased them, typed more and erased them.

> Darryl would know

I typed.

> God, this was the stuff he was great at.

Jolu didn't type anything. Then,

> How about a party?

he typed.

> How about if we all get together somewhere like we're teenagers having a party and that way we'll have a ready-made excuse if anyone shows up asking us what we're doing there?

> That would totally work! You're a genius, Jolu.

> I know it. And you're going to love this: I know just where to do it, too

> Where?

> Sutro baths!

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License .