The book’s narrator, Marcus Yallow, is a 17-year-old high school kid / hacker in San Francisco. He’s into the usual stuff – games, girls and beating the school’s firewall and “locked-down” PCs. Then our favorite terrorists, Al-Queda, swoop down and blow up both the Bay Bridge and the BART tunnel under the bay, killing thousands. This is immediately followed by Homeland Security, which drags Marcus and an unknown number of others into a secret detention camp on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay for some Constitution-free interrogation.
Now, some of my more conservative readers are going to have heartburn right about there. Since one Jose Padilla, a US citizen, was arrested and held as an enemy combatant not 20 miles from here, I have to say that there is certainly a willingness by some to do this. Whether the capability as outlined in the book exists or not is another issue. At any rate, as told in the book, it’s no more unrealistic then anything in a Tom Clancy novel.
I’d also like to point out that, as made clear in the ending, Doctorow doesn’t think we’re all doomed to fall crushed under the heels of The Man. My one or two long-time readers my remember I reviewed Charles Sheehan-Miles' book Republic, which takes a much darker look at our future.
At any rate, Homeland Security releases Yallow with ill grace, following the same “dump them in the street” process followed by the CIA with some rendered detainees. They’ve also set up quite a bit of additional “security” in the form of checkpoints and monitoring. Marcus, generally cranked about the situation, puts his hacker skills to work.
His main tactic is to demonstrate via some creative hacking that a system which generates 1% false positives while looking for 0.1% bad guys leads to massive amounts of hassle. 1% of the Bay Area population is 200,000, a large number to sift through trying to find 10 or 20 people. Things escalate on both sides until grownup supervision finally arrives. In the case of Homeland Security, the supervision is provided by the California Highway Patrol.
Doctorow is a very computer literate guy, and he’s paired up for some of the research with Bruce Schneier, a noted security expert, so all the computer “geek stuff” is real world. Also, Doctorow does a very good job on his characterization. Not all adults are bad, and Marcus, although rather skilled in things computer, isn’t perfect and is very much a teenager.
Bottom line – buy this book.