Sunday , October 25 2020
Cory Doctorow

Book Review: ‘Attack Surface’ by Cory Doctorow

Attack Surface by Cory Doctorow, published by Macmillan, is probably the most frightening book you’ll read this year. No, Doctorow hasn’t switched to writing horror novels, he’s just postulating a future that’s already here. 

A world where your every movement and action can be traced. Where people with the right technology can orchestrate events to spin what ever story they wish the world to believe.

Masha Maximow works for one of the big private “security’ firms that have sprung up since the creation of the Patriot Act in the US. At first most of them were the equivalent of mercenaries governments and businesses would hire to ‘consult’ in war zones. Where consult means whatever the parties agree it means. 

However with the rise in digital surveillance these firms now make their bread and butter by supplying anybody who has the money to not only spy on anyone they want, but to manipulate technology to create events or cause accidents. When we first meet Masha she’s helping an ex-USSR satellite state set up its surveillance on people protesting their dictator’s rule. 

Doctorow does his best to make the descriptions of the technical stuff she does intelligible to those of us who might as well be luddites when it comes to this level of sophistication. However don’t skim read those sections, because they’re important. They let you see how easy it is for you and your information to be hacked, used, and manipulated.

Masha is living two lives. On one hand she’s installing the tech to allow a totalitarian government to spy on its people; on the other she’s feeding information to the resistance on how they can avoid detection from the equipment she’s installing.

Doctorow does a great job in showing us the arc that took Masha from working for Homeland Security and then the private sector. She is an interesting and complex character who has to fight for any scrap she’s given. We look on aghast as she describes, with some pride, the tech she’s installing and what its capable of doing but also wonder at how she can then so blithely turn around and teach people how to avoid it.

Attack Surface is the third book in a series that started back in 2008 with Little Brother. While there are references to events from that book, you don’t need to have read them to enjoy and appreciate this book. The characters are wonderful and the story line, with its basically ripped from the headlines plot, is fast paced, exciting, and scary. Scary in the sense of how real it is and how easy it is for a company or government to carry out the scenarios described in this book.

If you have any doubts as to Doctorow’s description of the tech being utilized in Attack Surface read the afterward written by Ron Deibert, a professor of Political Science and director of Citizen’s Lab. Citizen’s Lab have spent the past 20 years involved with the work tracking and monitoring those who are tracking and monitoring your devices. 

He says the world described by Doctorow is the world he’s been living in for the past couple of decades. He and his lab have done everything from warning human rights advocates their phones are being monitored to uncovering Saudi espionage against journalists which led to the murder of  Jamal Khashoggi. In other words he knows what he’s talking about.

Now Doctorow doesn’t just preach about the system, he actively works against it and Attack Surface is a perfect case in point. Normally when an author wants an audio book of his work his publisher has to go through Audible, an Amazon company which controls 90% of that market. 

On top of that through a clause in their contract your audio book’s digital rights are tied to Amazon forever. They can remove it from circulation and reach down and take it off your player. (Ironically one of the title they’ve done this to was George Orwell’s 1984) So to get around them Doctorow retains his audio book rights.

So he has self-produced the audio-book for Attack Surface and is raising funds for it via Kickstarter. You order in advance and not only do you get it cheaper it comes without all the extraneous controls Amazon inflicts on you. There’s also the added benefit of feeling great about not adding to Bezo’s Billions.

No matter in which format you buy Attack Surface you’ll find it worth reading. Doctorow has recreated our world in all its scary detail. A brilliant book with a great main character, a riveting plot, and an incredibly topical story combine to make this an essential read.

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.

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