Review of Attack Surfaces - Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow's Attack Surfaces Cover

Cory Doctorow writes the books that need writing. In 2020, that's a book about police surveillance and the firms hired to bootstrap big scary surveillance tech on the backs of militarized police forces, forces that were scary long before they could track the movement and communications of citizens. But Doctorow doesn't just pull back the cover on scary tech and the firms that operationalize it. He counterbalances the acceleration of surveillance and control with democratic resistance. Doctorow's heroes stand up to power and keep standing up to power until that power stands down.

Homeland Supremacy

Attack Surfaces is the third book in a series that began by raising awareness of the power of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to surveil, detain, and torture citizens in the name of protecting the homeland from terrorism. If you're creeped out by the name homeland applied to a department in the US government, join the rest of us in wondering why the US thought it was a good idea to borrow from the Nazi playbook. Why inject a democracy with the rhetoric of overwrought, if not insane, nationalism? Why choose a name that links to Nazi Germany's blood and soil movement? Sadly, the prevalence nowadays of white supremacists marching under the cover of darkness, tiki torches aloft explains a lot here. 

Electronic Devices and Spying

Attack Surface's narrative is several ticks more complex than Little Brother. That's not a criticism of either book. In Attack Surfaces, Doctorow has moved past the power of DHS into scarier territory, a black ops world of hacking and tracking made easier by the proliferation of appliances and devices all too easily compromised by bugged security patches. It's not just smartphones that can spy on their owners now. Although, smartphones are still the easiest way to keep tabs on people. Smartphones--what Doctorow calls distraction rectangles--are too good at capturing our attention. We feel safer with them for a myriad reasons: you can call people with them; they have maps; they can tell you if it's going to rain or snow; if you can't think of something, the phone can help with that too. A smartphone is a guarantee against getting lost or lonely. It's the answer to every question. But it also has no moral compass. It's a computer, and it can be hacked and made to spy on its owner.

And, make no mistake, phones are spying on their owners. And, the people doing the spying might not even be in a government department. They might be a group like Doctorow's Xoth or Zyz, firms that are incredibly well paid, hired out to do the government's dirty work, infecting devices with spyware and coming up with systems for crunching all the data, for understanding the information cascades pouring into surreptitious servers.


But Doctorow isn't all tech in Attack Surfaces. One surface he attacks most relentlessly is the human tendency to compartmentalize. The protagonist, Masha, compartmentalizes to carry out her work in the book's shadowy surveillance firms. Her life is a cushy reflection of the lives of those under surveillance. Though Masha's bank account is flush with cash as a result of her work, she has no freedom. She's held hostage by the secrecy she operates in. She's traumatized by images she finds on company servers, knowing her work results in systematic raping and murder of the innocent.

Masha has steeled herself through compartmentalization, but she finds freedom in letting go. Letting go leads her to join a demonstration on the street with a Black-Brown Alliance fighting against the Oakland police. Instead of using her coding skills, Masha uses her voice, a voice she thought she didn't have. She joins in the chants that question "Whose streets?" and affirm "Our streets."

Doctorow's low tech answer to a high tech world is elegant. He asks, what do we do against runaway levels of surveillance? We double down on making our voices heard. Because, with ubiquitous surveillance, our voices are already heard: yes, heard, recorded, analyzed. But when voices come together, and those voices reflect the will of the people. Well, then there's no more surfaces left to attack.

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