When I was working at the CIA, if you had told me that there would soon come a youth rebellion that relied on lasers and traffic cones as sword and shield, and that it would come to paralyze one of the world’s richest and most powerful governments, I would have—at the very least—raised an eyebrow. And yet as I write these words nearly a decade later, this is exactly what’s happening in Hong Kong, the city where I met with journalists to reveal the secret that would transform me from an agent of government into one of the world’s most wanted men. As it happened, the very book that you now hold in your hands lay on the desk, the desk of the last hotel room I would ever pay for with a credit card.
What I showed those journalists was proof, in the form of the government’s own classified documents, that the self-described “Five Eyes”—the state security organs of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada—had together conspired to weaken their laws. They had forced clandestine access to the networks of their largest telecommunications and internet titans (some of whom hadn’t needed much in the way of arm-twisting) in pursuit of a single goal: the transformation of the free and fragmented internet into history’s first centralized means of global mass surveillance. This violation of our fundamental privacy occurred without our knowledge or consent, or even the knowledge and consent of our courts and most lawmakers.
Here’s the thing: Although the global response to this violation was furious, producing the largest intelligence scandal of the modern age, mass surveillance itself continues to work today, virtually unimpeded. Nearly everything you do, and nearly everyone you love, is being monitored and recorded by a system whose reach is unlimited, but whose safeguards are not.
But while the system itself was not substantially changed—as a rule, governments are less interested in reforming their own behavior than in restricting the behavior and rights of their citizens—what did change was the public consciousness.
The idea that the government was collecting the communications of those who had done nothing wrong had once been treated as a paranoid conspiracy theory (or as the subject of instructive fiction, such as the work you’re about to read). Suddenly, this prospect had become all too real—the sort of universally acknowledged truth that can be so quickly waved away as obvious and unremarkable by the crooked timber of our political operators.
Meanwhile, the corporations of the world digested the realization that their darkest shame—their willful complicity in crimes against the public—had not been punished. Rather, these collaborators had been actively rewarded, with either explicitly retroactive immunity or informal guarantees of perpetual impunity. They became our latest Big Brother, striving to compile perfect records of private lives for profit and power. From this emerged the contemporary corruption of our once-free internet, called surveillance capitalism.
We are coming to see all too clearly that the construction of these systems was less about connection than it was about control: The proliferation of mass surveillance has tracked precisely with the destruction of public power.
And yet despite this grim reading from my seven years in exile, I find more cause for hope than despair, thanks in no small part to those lasers and traffic cones in Hong Kong. My confidence springs not from how they are applied—to dazzle cameras and, with a little water, to contain and extinguish the gas grenades of a state gone wrong—but in what they express: the irrepressible human desire to be free.
The problems that we face today, of dispossession by oligarchs and their monopolies, and of disenfranchisement by authoritarians and their comfortably captive political class, are far from new. The novelty is in the technological means by which these problems have been entrenched—to put it simply, the bad guys have better tools.
You have heard that when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Herein lies the folly of every system of rule whose future relies more heavily on the omnipotence of its methods than the popularity of its mandate. There were times when empires were won by bronze and boats and powder. None survive. What outlasts each forgotten flag is our greatest technology, language: the empire of the mind.
It is true that we have been thrust, like Marcus Yallow and his friends, into an unequal battle. But no amount of even the most perfect surveillance, no amount of repression or rent-seeking, can or will change who we are. From brave students in Hong Kong to brilliant cypherpunks in San Francisco, there is not a day that passes without individuals searching for the means to restore and improve the systems that govern our lives. We have seen ingenuity and invention give rise to systems that keep our secrets, and perhaps our souls; systems created in a world where possessing the means to live a private life feels like a crime. We have seen lone individuals create new tools—better tools—than even the greatest states can produce. But no technology, and no individual, will ever be enough on their own to curtail for long the abuses of our weary giants, with their politics of exclusion and protocols of violence. This is the part of the story that matters: that what begins with the individual persists in the communal.
The changing of an age takes more than lasers and traffic cones: it takes the hands that hold them.
It takes you.
CORY DOCTOROW: I wrote Little Brother, my 2008 novel of surveillance and resistance, two years after the AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein walked into the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s San Francisco offices to reveal that he’d been ordered to build a secret room so that the NSA could illegally spy on the whole internet. In the years since, surveillance and counter-surveillance have risen steadily—motivating new whistleblowers with fresh revelations about the use of networked computers to assert their power.
Ten years ago this month, Finland declared internet access a human right and people laughed and pointed. A decade later we’ve transitioned from arguing about whether everything we do necessarily involves the internet to the obvious fact that everything we do requires it.
Ed Snowden took a copy of Homeland—the sequel to Little Brother—with him when he left his Hong Kong hotel room and headed for exile. In the introduction to a new edition of both books, reprinted above, Snowden discussed the once-hopeful signs of a Hong Kong uprising, driven by networks and abetted by a global online solidarity movement.
Today, the Hong Kong uprising is in ashes and the mass arrests have begun. If you ever needed proof that networks are balanced on the knife-edge of liberation and oppression, here it is.
There’s a story that the digital rights movement started because techno-triumphalists were sure that the internet would make us all free; but if you have that certainty, why bother starting a movement? No, the movement owes its existence to the fact that anyone who understands technology well enough to appreciate its liberatory potential is necessarily terrified by its potential to oppress.
Excerpt from LITTLE BROTHER & HOMELAND by Cory Doctorow. Little Brother copyright © 2008 by Cory Doctorow; Afterword by Bruce Schneier © 2008 by Bruce Schneier. Homeland copyright © 2013 by Cory Doctorow. Introduction copyright © 2020 by Edward Snowden. Reprinted by permission of Tor/Forge Books, a division of Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Photographs: Anthony Wallace/Getty Images; Miguel Candela/Getty Images; Niklas Halle’n/Getty Images; Barton Gellman/Getty Images
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