Homeland, by Cory Doctorow (2013)

I read this book days before NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden went public with thousands of documents showing the extent to which the US security apparatus spies on anyone who uses the internet or a telephone. It was a surreal experience, as I pulled my head out of Doctorow’s fictional world of heroic geeks who unveil omnipresent government surveillance just to emerge into a world in which exactly that was front-page news. I read Homeland knowing that everything described was entirely plausible, but of course the world being shown definitive proof of years of conspiracy theories just made me feel like the novel had gained a few new chapters. It’s a rare writer who foresees the future quite so clearly. Pretty much every technology and government policy Doctorow describes already exists and is in widespread use today: when a character installs an app on their phone to encrypt their text messages, Doctorow gives the actual name so that you can go install it on your phone as well right now, and the book closes with afterwords by Wikileaks founder Jacob Appelbaum and the late, great digital rights activist Aaron Swartz which explain that yes, basically everything in this book is real, and here’s what you can do about it. There were some passages that struck me as just slightly far-fetched when I read them, but the news headlines rapidly caught up – for example, yes, cheap radio controlled drones exist, but would people really bring them to protests to broadcast aerial footage of police movements in realtime, to the point where they’d become a police target? Oh, wait, here’s a broadcast of footage by just such a drone getting shot down by the cops while flying over Tahrir Square in Turkey. I spotted a few minor factual inaccuracies here and there – Facebook will never allow an application which allows you to encrypt your communications, New Orleans cold brewed coffee also includes chicory – but overall, once again, Doctorow got it right.

Although I read this back in the summer, I felt like I couldn’t publish a review of it until I could put together a brief but thorough description of the state of online surveillance for the benefit of anyone reading who isn’t a paranoid, security conscious computer geek. The through coverage of the Snowden papers by the worldwide media has basically made that redundant, fortunately. And really, this book does a better job of giving an overall sense of that than I could. Homeland is a sequel to Little Brother, an alternate history of the 9/11 attacks in which San Francisco gets hit instead of New York and only a gang of kids with access to illegal cryptography stand in the way of a complete withdrawal of civil liberties in the US. Here, that same group of misfits brings down a secret NSA spying program built as a public-private partnership with a shady corporation… but I’ll stop giving away the plot now, because it’ll sound too much like Doctorow is recycling newspaper headlines as opposed to anticipating them. Oh, and did I mention yet that Doctorow gives away copies of all his books as DRM-free ebooks on his website? Or that it’s a quick, enjoyable read, and in fact is described by the publisher as a “young adult” novel? The link on Doctorow’s site is right beside the list of school libraries that would love a donation of a physical copy if you have the money. So really, you have no reason not to go read this book right now. Already read the book? Read the sequel, the sequel Lawful Interception.