- Interview by
- Simon Willmetts
When Laura Poitras flew to Hong Kong to meet Edward Snowden, she brought a copy of Cory Doctorow’s novel Homeland. It wasn’t an innocent gift. After communicating via technical encryption for months, the pair had decided that a more analog method of encoding their discussions might prove necessary. They settled upon a tried and tested method: a book cipher.
Anyone who has read Doctorow’s Homeland will understand immediately why Poitras settled upon it. Not only does it — like Doctorow’s other novels — break down for the lay public in accessible prose the range of surveillance practices and technical capabilities at the US government’s disposal — precisely the kind of conversation Snowden, Poitras, and Glenn Greenwald would be having over the next few days — but the book’s central plot is about a young and technically gifted idealist who goes public with secret evidence that incriminates the national security state’s repressive practices.
Doctorow follows in a long tradition of novelists who have examined the implications of mass surveillance, but his message is more empowering than many writing on technology today. Perhaps because he is both an activist (he ran the European wing of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and set up the UK Open Rights Group) and an author, his novels celebrate the idea that individuals can bring about change and use technology to overcome the surveillance state.
Simon Willmetts recently sat down with Doctorow in Los Angeles to discuss his thoughts on this post-Snowden age.
Was there a moment that you realized that the Internet was a domain of political struggle?
I think the watershed was the fight about the Karla Homolka murder trial.
She was the wife of serial killer Paul Bernardo. When they were arrested, the police couldn’t find any forensic evidence. He had bleached the walls of the house and had been very careful about covering his crimes. Homolka agreed to testify against him. She claimed that she had been coerced into it through physical abuse by him, and in exchange she was given a very light sentence.
Her trial was open, but there was a press ban to prevent a mistrial later when Bernardo went to trial. However, the American dailies reported from the trial, and their stories leaked across the US-Canadian border on Usenet. This caused a big Canadian upwelling of resentment that this American free speech doctrine was going to undermine our ability to convict this serial killer.
At first I thought, “This is a legitimate Canadian policy priority that is being undermined by the US and by the Internet, and maybe there is some scope here for regulation or something.” But what we learned during her trial from Usenet was that the police had done a remarkably bad job of searching their house. Homolka said, “If you want to convict my husband, just unscrew the light socket. We filled it with videotapes that document all of this stuff.”
I realized that without Usenet it would have been impossible for law enforcement’s mistakes to be the main event. If they only emerged after Bernardo was convicted and sentenced to jail, the fact of this investigatory and prosecutorial incompetence would have been completely lost in the debate.
This felt completely revelatory — the idea of free speech as being not an unalloyed good, but the least-worst option. I also started to think about how free speech was intimately related to network regulation.
You were coming of age around the same time as the personal computer revolution and the invention of the World Wide Web — do you think this affected your outlook on things?
Well, I dropped out of university in 1992 after reading a speech by Bruce Sterling to the Game Developer’s Conference, where he talked about not being well-rounded but thoroughly spiky. Then there was issue two of Wired magazine, which was the cyberpunk special edition.
After leaving university I got a job programming CD-ROMs. Then I became a “Gopher programmer,” and in the middle of my first Gopher job someone showed me NCSA Mosaic. I went to the people who hired me to build them a Gopher site and said, “We should make this a website instead.”
Were you coming of age politically then as well? Did you start actively engaging with politics in your early twenties?
No. I was already very political. When I was twelve, I organized an antinuclear proliferation group in my junior high.
I went to a free school — a sort of Summerhillian life. I took one year off, went to Baja California in Mexico and wrote, but I took another year out where I effectively went to no classes and did nothing but organize protests against the first Gulf War.
So you were an activist before you got into tech?
Yes. One of the revelatory things about the Internet was that in the 1980s, I could spend 98 percent of my time stuffing envelopes, putting stamps on them, and writing addresses on them, then the other 2 percent thinking about what to put in them. The Internet just gave us all of that for free. It put activists on a footing in which they had a kind of cognitive surplus with which to conduct their organizing.
I’d like to change the subject a little bit now and ask you about your literary influences, the most obvious being George Orwell. Your novels Little Brother and Homeland are replete with Orwellian language and allusions, not least the title of the former.
Yes, although, funnily enough, we nearly changed the title just before it came out because my editor and marketing were worried that kids would mix up the title with the TV show “Big Brother.” But we eventually went back to it.
So was Homeland alluding to the Homeland TV series in any way?
No. Much more so to the Department of Homeland Security. The unreflective irony of the security apparatus is, itself, amazing — the way they name things. “Total information awareness,” “The Department of Homeland Security,” “Enhanced interrogation,” “Predator drones. . .”
It’s almost like there is someone there working on our side trying to make what they do sound as horrible as possible.
There’s been some backlash in academic circles against the Orwellian metaphor for surveillance — which is a metaphor your novels readily adopt. Some argue that Orwell’s vision of Big Brother’s boot stamping on a human face is too simplistic, and doesn’t really capture the world we’re living in, where everyone is watching everyone — “Sousveillance,” as it’s sometimes referred to — as opposed to surveillance simply being the instrument of a repressive state.
Well, I think that there is social surveillance and it’s not necessarily new. Many historians have observed that social surveillance was the norm in the small agricultural towns where everybody knew everybody else’s business in the seventeenth century. Even if the only “everyone” whose business you knew were people who lived nearby, you had a very intimate view into their lives. There are ways in which that is corrosive.
But it’s a different kind of corrosiveness to the kind of overwhelming corporate and state surveillance. The argument I hear more often than the “sousveillance” argument is that corporations are scarier than governments, or governments are scarier than corporations. But the reality is that the only reason overwhelming surveillance is possible is because, on the one hand, the state has failed to regulate private data collection and, on the other, the state raids corporate databases.
After the Church Committee in the 1970s, when the FBI’s surveillance powers were limited, the credit bureaus sprang up. A lot of them were started by ex-FBI agents, and although they supplied intelligence to mortgage lenders and lots of other entities, their major client was the FBI. The FBI wasn’t allowed to maintain dossiers on people unless they had specific, articulable criminal suspicions about them, but credit bureaus were.
Whether you are worried about the state surveilling you or corporations surveilling you, the problem of mass surveillance is inseparable from state or corporate surveillance. When you have one, you’ll have the other, and until you rein in one, you’ll never rein in the other.
Do you think that applies to the Google, NSA, and PRISM stuff that came out in the Edward Snowden leaks?
Well, to address PRISM specifically: it’s not well understood. My understanding of PRISM is that they had this CALEA interface. CALEA is the statute that requires back doors in switches and the easy service of lawful interception orders to telecoms providers and online service providers. It’s only meant to be used in criminal investigations, domestically.
But the NSA was collecting material straight from Google’s Inter-Data Center using eFiber taps. When they found something that they wanted to take action on, to prevent someone from guessing that they had these upstream collection points, they would ask the FBI to get a FISA warrant for a CALEA interception into Google. That way, anyone who was inside Google and watching what the NSA was doing would believe that the way that the NSA got this intelligence was through a CALEA interface, not through the upstream collection.
Nevertheless, it’s still true that Google was getting an awful lot of CALEA requests that they seemed to have been passing through without much opposition. I know that there were cases in which the major online service providers took action, but they really took a lot of those FISA warrants at face value.
So you think they should have been more robust in challenging the FISA warrants?
Yes. I mean, Google is stuffed full of people from the military-industrial complex, not least Eric Schmidt. His speciality at Sun Microsystems was providing data services to the intelligence services in the military. He is really on the inside, so it’s not surprising that they were that cooperative.
In Homeland, the protagonist Marcus Yallow is torn between working to get a mainstream political candidate elected and taking more direct action against the surveillance state. Which is it for you: do you think all of the encroaching infringements on our privacy can be defeated at the ballot box?
I’m an instrumentalist. I believe that when you’re confronted with a wicked problem if you can find an intervention that will make a significant difference, then that intervention is worthwhile on its own because it may suggest new interventions along the way.
The first casualty of any battle is the plan of attack. The Hari Seldon or Karl Marx view of political change — where you plot a fifteen-year program — is a useful fictional exercise to get everyone’s vision aligned, but don’t mistake it for a set of instructions or a roadmap because you don’t get from A to B that way.
Instead, you should just take your first step on the way to B, and you’ll discover entirely novel things along the way. I have learned this doing start-ups, parenting, and doing politics. Anything big and complicated that is subject to exogenous shocks is never going to be a thing you can plot.
For example, I feel like getting more people to vote is useful in and of itself. Maybe you can defeat a bad law. Maybe CISA [Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act], which just passed, wouldn’t have passed if our voter turnout had been 15 percent higher. In the world of CISA, it’s going to be harder to get other stuff done, whether through direct action or working within the system, so with every step we take, in and out of the system, we need to work together.
I am skeptical that capitalism has a future. I am less skeptical that bourgeois democracy has a future, although I don’t think it’s a slam dunk.
You ruminate on this dilemma toward the end of Homeland: that sometimes disabling sense that these problems of mushrooming surveillance and creeping authoritarianism that confront us are so big, so systemic and structural, that it’s easy to feel powerless to stop them. But you end the novel with a rousing incitement for us to act, and a vindication of individual agency. For Marcus, it seems it’s better, as you say, to do something than nothing at all.
Yes. If your ship sinks, you tread water. Not because you have a chance of being rescued, but because everyone who was rescued treaded water until rescue arrived. It’s the necessary but insufficient precondition for success.
Mass movements are a necessary but insufficient precondition for success. This is where I part ways with people like Evgeny Morozov, who has got this kind of ridiculous vanguard notion that you should have star chambers who plot the future and we can’t trust the demos to run things. It’s a ridiculous idea.
Unlike a lot of authors who write about technology, you don’t blame technology itself for the problems that confront us. If anything you’re an optimist about the liberatory potential of technology. Rather, your concern is with technology being used in the wrong way, by the wrong people, and to the wrong ends. Other novelists like Dave Eggers, who wrote The Circle, tend to take a more deterministic line — that our Promethean bargain with technology is driving us almost inexorably towards a bleak future where privacy is dead.
One way that I think I differ from many of those writers is in technological depth. Take encryption. With encryption, we have something totally new and wonderful — essentially a lock that no one, no matter how powerful, can open by brute force.
Of course the security services have alternatives. In the UK, thanks to Tony Blair, there is RIPA, so they can put you in jail for not giving up your password. Or they can get a warrant to sneak into your house and put in a camera that can watch you type your password. There have been lots of examples of that.
Neverthless, encryption represents a profound shift, and it’s a thing that is lost on writers who approach technology as a theory object and not as a literal fact in the world. This was my biggest problem with Paul Mason’s otherwise brilliant PostCapitalism. Mason engages with technology as a theory object and fails to come to grips with it in terms of its actual technological characteristics.
At one point, he says, “If we can’t manage production through market signals, perhaps we could aggregate demand through the market intelligence that large firms create. We could, for example, anonymize Amazon’s dataset and use it to regulate our production.”
The idea that you can anonymize Amazon’s dataset is nonsense. Lacking any technical expertise, you might say, “Well, that sounds plausible.” It’s no more plausible than Hari Seldon predicting the future two thousand years in advance.
This insight isn’t unique to me. Writers like Neal Stephenson and Karl Schroeder are really engaged with technology, and while I don’t agree with all of their ideas about where technology will or won’t go, I think they’re wonderful, and I’ll read every word they write.
Would you characterize your Little Brother and Homeland novels as paranoid, or at least playing on conspiracy theory tropes?
Maybe they play on the tropes, but I think that the actual things that happen to Marcus are literally happening.
In 2005, Mark Klein came to our offices at EFF and showed us documentation that the NSA had directed him, through his bosses, to build a secret room at the AT&T Switching Center on Folsom Street, put a beam splitter in their fiber optic backbone, and begin to place the entire Internet under surveillance.
We knew that in 2005. Long before WikiLeaks and long before Snowden, we had that knowledge. When Little Brother came out in 2008, people characterized it as prescient. It wasn’t — people had simply missed something that had been on the front page of the New York Times for weeks at a time but was lost in the general order of things. It had been in the news, but not in the zeitgeist.
So I think it’s wrong to call it “paranoid” because paranoid implies delusion. And as a belief system, paranoia is entangled with a belief in the intrinsic wickedness of your fellow humans, and that power corrupts, that the state is always evil and all of these other elements.
So in that sense, I’d call my novels highly politicized rather than paranoid. I don’t object to government surveillance per se, but to unaccountable surveillance by state actors on a mass scale.
So you wouldn’t describe yourself as a “libertarian” — you don’t think state intervention is always necessarily a bad thing?
No. I believe in civil liberties, and I think that states are the least-worst option right now for solving some difficult collective action problems. But I also think that we’re learning every day how much hierarchy we can remove from complex endeavors.
Imagine something futuristic, like something on the scale of an operating system or an encyclopedia, with the same degree of complexity, the number of human hours and the amount of knowledge that goes into it, and something else on that scale, like a Canary Wharf tower, and imagine it being built the way that we built Wikipedia.
I have a plot of dirt, and I’m going to invite any stranger who has structural steel, trunking, rebar, cement, gravel, diggers, architectural drawings, or ideas to come and just muck around for a while. We’ll shout at each other a lot, and we’ll have some false starts. Some bits will come down, some bits will go up, and at the end, we will have not just an office tower, but the greatest office tower ever built, and it will be infinitely reproducible at zero cost.
Imagine a space program run like that. Imagine an aviation system run like that. Imagine a state run like that. That’s a futuristic thing, right? That’s a futuristic parable that uses Wikipedia and any Linux project to think about the scale at which we can operate in the absence of hierarchy. It challenges our imaginations to think about the coordination of that much labor without hierarchy.
Fred Turner’s book From Counterculture to Cyberculture is somewhat critical of that utopian view — the “Wired magazine” or “California ideology” idea that decentralized networks without any form of centralized or state-led direction always benefit society as a whole. He argues that they tend to benefit the privileged few — the white, male, middle-class section of society who make up the majority of the tech industry’s workforce.
I don’t propose that we will never have authority or authorities. I propose that those authorities should always be checked and, wherever possible, eliminated by systems that are resilient and distributed.
If there is a way that people who were in situations of oppression could resist that oppression without recourse to a capricious central authority whose interests can only be captured after a lot of blood and treasure is spilt, if people had access to self-help measures, then I think that is always the preferred first recourse. The thing about central authority is that it works well, but it fails badly.
If we could come up with an alternative, perhaps a central authority that’s not a bourgeois libertarian ideal but is engaged with the lived experience and lessons learned from contemporary struggles, I think that might be desirable.
Let’s talk about Edward Snowden. Have you had much contact with him?
Not until recently — though I did open for him once at South by Southwest. There have been many times when I’ve thought, “I want to send him a fan note and say how much I like him,” but I have resisted the temptation to harass him until recently.
I wonder whether Snowden read Little Brother, or was inspired by other similar fictional texts to do what he did. Do you think he wanted to be a hero?
No, definitely not. I think that Snowden’s number one strength is the cunning with which he kept himself out of the story. I think that he looked at Manning and he looked at Julian Assange, and he decided that the human dimension was a distraction.
Proponents of surveillance would rather argue about the personal merits of the whistleblower than about the substance of what they’ve blown the whistle on. Snowden exempted himself from the procedure in a way that nearly cost him his life, and has kept an unbelievably low profile for two years, and has only just started to trickle out into the public eye now that most of the most significant areas of his documents have been reported on.
The documents themselves were at the center of the story. Poitras has a show coming up at the Whitney, and it’s about the leaks, not about Snowden. Her movie was about the leaks, not about Snowden. He was the fulcrum on which the story turned, but you watch that movie and that’s a movie about leaks. That’s a movie about surveillance. It’s not a movie about whistleblowers. The only reason a whistleblower is in it is that’s how we find out about surveillance. I really think he has been unbelievably canny. Personally, I am in awe of him.
When the story first broke, the consensus among everybody I know who works on this stuff was like, “I hope he’s not an asshole. I really hope he’s not an asshole.”
“It would suck because this is really important stuff. If he’s out there womanizing, taking drugs, making stupid, racist statements, advocating 3D-printed guns or doing anything else like setting up assassination marketplaces on the dark web or any of this other stuff that happens around the edges, that would be terrible.”
If that were true, we thought: “We’re going to have to forever disentangle this guy’s desire to have a commercial market for human organs with the fact that he’s managed to surface the most important story about criminal mass surveillance in the history of the technological era.”
But Snowden has been brilliant, absolutely brilliant.
They haven’t managed to dig up much dirt on him.
No, they certainly haven’t.
I actually had an amazing conversation with a kid at West Point when I was there, who hung back until the end of my book signing — because they have a book store there.
I did my lecture, and he came up and shyly but also slightly belligerently said: “You know, I think I want to join the NSA.” I said, “Oh, yes? Why?” He said, “Well, I see my family. They use computers. I agree with everything you’ve said. The way that they use computers exposes them to enormous potential harm. I want to help protect them. That’s the branch of my nation’s military that protects our nation’s cyber infrastructure.”
I said, “Well, what about all the concerns with their illegal activities?” He said, “Well, I think I could do something about that. They need good people working there.”
One of the weird things about talking at West Point is that not all those people have clearance, so they’re not allowed to read the Snowden leaks. It’s illegal for government employees to traffic in classified documents. Those documents remain classified, even though they’re in the public domain. They can’t even read the New York Times on days when they’re publishing the Snowden materials. So I know more about what’s in the Snowden leaks than they do.
I said, “Look, I know you haven’t read the Snowden leaks, but Vanity Fair profiled him. You should read the profile. You should read his story because not only is he multigenerational military family, but he was the best and the brightest of the CIA, he was an undercover agent in Switzerland for the CIA, and he was their top IT guy at Booz, but he walked around with a copy of the Bill of Rights in booklet form in his back pocket and spent every hour of every day trying to talk to his colleagues about the legality of what was going on.
He went all the way up the chain of command over and over and over again, and after years of this, concluded that facing a firing squad was the only means by which he could redress what he had discovered inside the NSA.”
So I said to this kid: “You need to ask yourself, what is it that you’re going to do change the culture of the NSA that Snowden couldn’t?”
Okay, last question: what can you tell me about your forthcoming novel, Walkaway?
The hypothesis is that a utopian civilization is one that fails well, as well as working well, and that anyone can create a society in which the core values work well when there is abundance. If your society creates the impression that you and your neighbors are all in a friendly competition and that it’s ultimately everyone for themselves, when things go wrong, it will fail very badly.
In extremis, we need to take care of each other, not fight each other. Our belief that when the lights go out, our neighbors are coming over with a shotgun precludes our own option of going over to their house with a covered dish and a casserole.
It’s a novel about a utopian society that is a disaster novel. The disaster and the utopia is that in extremis, in disaster, people are kind to each other. It features skyscrapers that build themselves with a Wikipedia organizational structure . . . and so on.