One of the great promises of the digital age is the free flow of information and the ability to access to combined knowledge of centuries in the blink off an eye. It’s led to incredible leaps in productivity and fostered unprecedented innovation in both business and science. What wasn’t promised, but has nevertheless been delivered, is the use of this innovation by governments and private entities to break down the traditional bounds of privacy and liberty. To most, the Internet is an easy, harmless way to keep in touch with friends, as well as a cheap, anonymous way to consume information and news. Brad Thor’s latest thriller, “Black List”, is a lit match thrown into the tinderbox of those misguided assumptions about privacy in the digital age. The resulting blaze serves to illuminate the dangers inherent in government’s unquenchable thirst for your “private” information when coupled with their unchecked ability to use that information for any purpose they see fit.
“Black List” begins fast. In Washington D.C., a woman in possession of frightening and explosive information runs in to traffic outside a suburban mall and dies instantly. In Virginia, a man working for Adaptive Technology Solutions (a private sector offshoot of the NSA) is charged by his superiors with containing that information by any means necessary. In Paris, Scot Harvath is ambushed by a barrage of gunfire as he’s greeted by Riley Turner (a member of the elite, all female Athena Group) at a supposed safe house. These three events start the clock ticking on one of Brad Thor’s most frightening and plausible thrillers to date.
As the story unfolds, these three events conflate to bring in to focus a larger conspiracy. Someone is planning a massive terror attack on the United States’ digital infrastructure. Those same people have put Harvath and the entire Carlton Group on the “black list” – a list that marks them for death as enemies of the United States. Stalked by enemies who have access to all of the “digital exhaust” generated by both himself and those around him, Harvath faces one of his greatest challenges – staying alive long enough to uncover those behind the attack.
As always, Thor writes in a “ripped from the headlines” style. He has the uncanny ability to look around the corner and give us a taste of tomorrow’s history, today. “Black List” is a complex story and can be appreciated on many levels. I want to touch on two of those levels here– character development and a real world wake-up call.
Those who have read Thor’s previous novels have to come to know and admire Scot Harvath. Not merely a cardboard cutout action hero, Harvath has a depth and subtlety too often overlooked in the thriller genre. In this book, Harvath continues his growth and maturation – with his journey in these pages bookended by both loss and promise.
With that being said, what resonated most with me in this book was the continued evolution of Nicholas (aka – The Troll). Longtime fans will remember Nicholas as the diminutive computer genius first introduced as a nemesis for Harvath. Over time, both have grown closer to each, developing a budding trust and friendship. Nicholas and Harvath share a complicated relationship – one that seems all the more real for the shades of grey it encompasses.
Here, Nicholas continues his journey from darkness to light. We get a few further glimpses in to his past and the things that make him tick. Most poignantly, we see the depth of his continued transformation in a simple hug he shares with his friend, Harvath. That moment was the culmination of a long journey for Nicholas. It was the most rewarding part of the story and offered a much needed human balance to the chilling digital conflict that was unfolding. It was a small thing, but sometimes our lives turn on the small things.
Not content to draw compelling characters and craft an enjoyable story – Thor also uses “Black List” as a wake-up call for all of us. He pulls back the curtain on the reality of surveillance and intelligence gathering in the digital world. While things like Google and Facebook have brought a world of information to our fingertips, they have also given governments an easy one-stop shop for monitoring our lives.
Email? The government reads it all. Facebook posts? The government sees every one. Google searches? Those too. GPS coordinates? The government is watching. Cell phone calls, utility bills, credit card transactions, blog posts (including book reviews like this one), Twitter activity, travel plans – the government sees it all, and is archiving every single byte to build a digital profile of who you are, what you do, and even what you think. Convinced your life is private? Think again – and think hard.
She made a big deal about a study from the Brookings Institute. Entitled ‘Recording Everything: Digital Storage as an Enabler of Authoritarian Governments,’ its premise was that as the costs for data storage fall, it becomes ‘more cost effective for governments to record every scrap of digital information’ its citizens produce.
The easier and more cost effective that is, the more incentive there is to do it. The technology not only enables authoritarianism, it encourages it. Governments simply cannot say “no” when offered more power. And as we know, information, and thereby knowledge, is power.
At the core of “Black List” is a powerful, and powerfully alarming idea – what if the government, or a rogue element inside the government, perpetrated a false flag attack on the nation’s digital infrastructure? A “digital Pearl Harbor“. Think about it. How much of what you do every day is contingent upon information or access to the Internet? Need money? If the bank systems and ATM network are down, it won’t matter how much you have – you won’t be able to access it. Want to go visit your cousin in Iowa? No computerized reservation system or networked air traffic control – good luck getting out of the airport. Want to buy a few groceries? Fine, until you run out of what little cash you have on hand. Not mention what will happen when the grocery stores’ replenishment systems go down and can’t place orders to restock the shelves. Want to go online and find our where there IS some food? No luck – no Internet means no Google, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Thorum, and for many people with VoIP – no phone.
Why would government, or anyone else do something like this? Simple – people are more likely to willingly give up their freedoms and liberty in response to a crisis. It’s a government technique as old as time – create a problem, then offer people the solution. That solution almost always entails the surrender of personal liberty. Once surrendered – you don’t get those liberties back.
“Lobbying for the ability to censor the Web isn’t good in my opinion. I don’t like censorship of any kind, anywhere. I want the Net to be free and open. But I find it hard to believe that a U.S. President would claim there was an ongoing emergency and use it to keep the people off the Internet when there was really no emergency at all.”
“Three days after the 9/11 attacks,” said Nicholas, “the President of the United States declared a national state of emergency. Over a decade later, it’s still in effect.”
Just as 9/11 ushered in a new era of surveillance, “security infrastructure”, and loss of liberty; so too will the next major attack on America – an attack that’s likely be digital. Who will be there to protect us at that point? The government, of course. Limits on speech, limits on information sharing, limits on anonymity, limits on private control of the Internet, etc. It’s an online version of TSA body scanners and VIPR checkpoints waiting to happen.
I can hear what many people will say – “It’s just to keep us safe from the bad people, and the bad ideas they promote online.” Think about that for a second. “Keep us safe from ideas“. How exactly will they do that? How do you protect someone from an idea? You do it by suppressing the idea, cutting it out of conversation and publication. You demonize those that espouse it. You ostracize them, personally attack them, and ridicule them. Then you limit or eliminate their access to the public square – either literal or virtual.
How lucky we will be to have someone looking out for us like that! Protecting us from dangerous ideas like terrorism and extremism. Dangerous thoughts like resisting taxation without representation. Outlandish ideas like the desire to say what we want and associate with whom we want. Unthinkable aspirations like declaring independence from a tyrannical monarchy and establishing a more perfect union. Thank God we live in a world where ideas like that will never be allowed to flourish.
It’s cliché, but also appropriate, to turn again to Benjamin Franklin in times like these. “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” How very true. You see – the dirty little secret is that those in power have always controlled the narrative. They write the rules, the write the new stories, and they write the history books. Until now. The Internet has become the great leveler. It gives voice to the small and checks the power of the large. It allows ideas to live or die in the arena of public discourse. It allows unfettered access (at least for now, and at least in some places) to unfiltered and limitless information. It’s a real time window on current events outside of the control of the government. My fear is – without constant vigilance, that can’t stand.
The Department of Homeland Security recently issued a report identifying “disgruntled” military veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan as potential “right-wing” terrorists. Supporters of politicians and political causes that called for smaller government with greater accountability to American citizens were also labeled as potential terrorists. Owning guns, ammunition, or more than a weeks worth of food now classifies your as a potential terrorist. Even certain political bumper stickers or flying the bright yellow Don’t Tread On Me Gadsden flag can qualify you as a terrorist.
No matter what you do, your government sees you as the greatest threat to its existence – greater the al-Qaeda or any foreign invader – and it will do whatever it needs to do to protect itself.
Freedom, as they say, is messy. With easy access to information and thousands of tools that enable near real-time public assembly and communication, there comes the requirement of responsibility. For the system to work and the center to hold, you have to have an educated and informed public – one capable of policing itself and holding governments and corporations in check. We’ve spend the last sixty years dumbing down this country – creating the very circumstances that will lead to a frightened public gladly handing over liberty in exchange for the illusion of security.
I have news for you. Prisoners also enjoy a high level of “security”. They have free food, free medical care, free shelter, and have no real need for money or wealth. The information they have access to is carefully controlled, as is the very environment around them. They are “protected” in every real sense of the word. I ask you – is that the life you wish for you or your children? Or would you prefer a messy, unsure, dangerous – but ultimately rewarding life of freedom? I choose freedom – because a world free of all risk is also free of all reward.
In the end, what can any of us do about it? The government is going to collect all of the information it can about each one of us. It’s almost inconceivable that someone could function today while being completely disconnected from the digital world. It can be done – but for all the downsides of connected living, there are also tremendous upsides. Developing ideas, meeting new friends, sharing unfiltered news – as I said before, the Internet has become the great leveler in political and social discourse. We can’t simply abandon it.
What, then, is there for us to do? The answer lies in renewing our commitment to the words of Abraham Lincoln.
…That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
It’s up to us to hold the politicians of both parties and the unelected bureaucrats accountable for their actions. This is our government, but we would do well to remember that the liberties and freedoms we possess are granted to us by God – not by men or their constructs. None of them should be sacrificed on the altar of “security”. If you enjoy the freedom to read, and write, and think what you want – protect that freedom from encroachment at every turn.
Governments and corporations around the world are compiling massive amount of data on their citizens and customers. Data that, in a very real sense, represents who those citizens and customers are – what they think, what they feel, and what they aspire to. Knowledge is power. How much of the power that is ‘We The People’ are we willing to cede to the State? And why is it so important? Brad Thor says it best:
…Power is a heady drug. Only the very strong can resist its pull. Those with power tend most often to search out more in order to solidify their positions and prevent themselves from being dislodged. It’s how a republic slips from freedom into soft tyranny and eventually despotism.
In the final balance, “Black List” will entertain you and it will make you think. Filled with action, real world intrigue, and thought provoking concepts, this book quite frankly scared the living hell out of me. It will call in to question everything you think you know about living in today’s connected world. What does privacy really mean anymore? Is there anything off limits for the government to track and archive? How far are we willing to go as a nation to secure our safety? The answers to those questions are going to shape the tomorrow we all inherit.
Read my review of “Foreign Influence” by Brad Thor – here.
Read my review of “The Athena Project” by Brad Thor – here.
Read my “Athena Project” interview with Brad Thor – here.
Read my review of “Full Black” by Brad Thor – here.
Read my “Full Black” interview with Brad Thor – here.
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