Chromebooks and Dystopia: Little Brother

Beyond the technical, an important part of my “Privacy Voyage” is inspiration. Books, as I’ve come to re-discover, offer plenty of that. I recently picked up a copy of Little Brother1 and I find it hard to put down.

Little Brother is a fictional book, but it’s too close to reality for comfort. It’s about Marcus, a 17-year-old teenager with a neck for trouble and problems with authority, who takes us through his adventures of hacking the system - technically and philosophically.

How close to reality? Here’s an example. One of the things that captivated me right away is the book’s description of Marcus' school-issued laptop, and how he hacked it. The resemblance to Chromebooks is very striking, and originally I thought the author didn’t call these laptops Chromebooks so he wouldn’t get in trouble with Google. But Doctorow, the author, is not afraid of naming Google, Apple, and Facebook in many other places in the book. This was odd, so I checked into the publication date of the book and realized it was published about 4 years before the first Chromebooks started showing up at schools. Doctorow wasn’t hiding from Google; he merely predicted the future.

The similarities between fiction and reality didn’t end there for me. You see, before I turned IT, I was a teacher. A teacher-turned-IT at the same school I was teaching. I spent much of my time around Chromebooks and Google’s Admin Console, regulating what students can and cannot do on these machines. I recall one specific task that required students not to use dictionaries or go online out of fear of cheating in their exams. I had to figure out how to make the Chromebook - a laptop that piratically lives off the net and Google services - function without these while still allowing the students to submit their work online. It was fun making it work.

And then there’s Scarface, my own hacked Chromebook.

Scarface with its scar

Scarface got his name from the ugly thick black tape on its right side, as you can see in the picture above. It’s evidence to my tempering. I wanted to completely wipe out ChromeOS, not just install the Chromebook’s flavor watered-down Linux you can activate in developer mode. I’ve come to know Gallium OS, a Debian-based Linux that was built for Chromebooks. Not all models were going to work; if I remember correctly the main issue was having an Intel CPU, not ARM (at least at the time) and a certain BIOS.

Scarface, officially HP Chromebook 11 G3, fit the profile. Another issue was that ChromeOS prevents the “bad guys” from tempering with its OS by locking it down inside the motherboard with a special “screw,” a hardware fail-safe equivalent to safe boot. I had to look at schematics of the HP motherboard, figure out where that screw was, and take it out. I wasn’t very gentle opening it up and used a butter knife. The fact that these Chromebooks are not meant to be opened didn’t help much. The result was an ugly crack at the right side, which I covered with a thick tape I had. Scarface earned its name. Besides the fact that the 6-year-old battery can’t hold much of a charge anymore, It works just fine. I booted it up just a few days ago.

In the book, a big terrorist event takes place, and Marcus is caught and suspected to be a terrorist because, well, he’s a “troublemaker.” But what is a troublemaker? Per the Department of Homeland Security (DHM) in the book, that’s someone who was at the wrong place at the wrong time and happened to have equipment that implies he’s up to no good - like, say, a hacked Chromebook. they detain him and interrogate in some off-shore location, eventually forcing him to give up his phone’s password so they can have a look. As I was reading the descriptions in the book, I had to remind myself that that is not fiction. this can and did happen. Our government does have this power, and they do exercise it. In case you’re wondering: Snowden’s discoveries of the US government mass surveillance program took place in 2013. The book was published in 2008.

Yet Another striking point in the book is how helpless the government is. Doctorow uses real statistical concepts like the False Positive Paradox showing why, for example, capturing terrorists using mass surveillance is piratically useless. Explaining this here does it injustice because what this book does well is to get you to think “this is made up. This can’t be real.” And then you check in Wikipedia or the internet achieve, and there it is. It provides a narrative that is so similar, if not identical at times, to what’s going on in the US today, to the point it makes your hair stand.

Little Brother is not a cybersecurity instruction book (there are plenty of those available online2), but it’s doing a good job explaining the general idea behind encryption, the onion network, and other hackery things in general. I’m just half done, but I already beseech you: if online privacy matters to you and you haven’t read this book, do so. You won’t regret it.

Footnotes


  1. It would be hypercritical of me to buy a book about online from Amazon. As it turns out, a local bookstore offers gift cards that can be purchased with cash. It was a bit weird to go to the store and ask for a book in the name of an alias, but it worked. It makes reading it somewhat more special. ↩︎

  2. I can’t bring up cybersecurity books without mentioning Humble Bundle’s Books. They have excellent computer books each month for excellent prices, and the money goes to charity. ↩︎


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