On Stallman and Surveillance

Key billing at the Turing Festival was, of course, Richard M. Stallman, the so-called ‘prophet of free software’. He delivered a ringing peroration, indicting proprietary software in all its forms and, occasionally throughout the meeting, engaging in spirited discourse with those who react less strongly to the ‘i-Bad’, and the ‘Amazon Swindle’.

Richard M. Stallman, GNU in hand, addressing the Turing Festival

Stallman identified a number of threats to our freedom online and, by extension, to our freedom overall in the Information age. The surveillance carried out by governments via our own devices and the reporting of our activities to others is one such threat. Mobile phones which send your GPS location to third parties is another. Various online features of Windows, and ‘like’ buttons on Facebook, all allow data on us to be harvested. Remote surveillance is carried out via systems that are not ours, for example ISPs keeping records about users. This can be used to attack democratic activity. And data gathered for the most legitimate of reasons can still be absued by future regimes. ANY data retention, Stallman argued, is dangerous. In a free society you are not guaranteed anonymity – you can be recognized in the street. But it is diffuse, it cannot be collated easily. With computerization and digitization, all this can be indexed. Censorship is another threat, even in the supposedly democratic West.

Stallman also discussed ‘threats’ posed by proprietary standards, whose source elements are not viewable by their users. Of course, the recent experience of the Digital Humanities suggests that matters influencing, or limiting the application of free standards are not limited to the mechanics of what is open and what is not. Followers of the travails of the TEI on Twitter and elsewhere will know that openness in governance and administration is just as importance as openness of schemata and documentation. One cannot detatch the one from the other, as one risks doing if one simply demands that the source be open.

It is difficult not to admire the elegance of Stallman’s dictum that ‘either users control their programmes or the programmes control the users’; and few, outside the neoist of neo-cons, doubt the horrors inflicted on Americans and non-Americans alike by the reactionary and deeply unpatriotic PATRIOT act. But one does perhaps have  to wonder if, even in our ultra-technologized age, all this rests on the assumption that we *have* to give up our freedoms to technology in the first place. If I assume that anything I write in an email might potentially become public – just ask the climate scientists at UEA’s Climate Research Unit – then what does it matter if Windows is tracking my emails through Outlook? Stallman also made the point that Open Source communities are typically more interested in improving their code bases rather than enabling the users by making the software. Again, one needs to question why, exactly, there should be such a stark either or approach. I suppose this might take on a very different perspective, or set of perspectives, if one is using open vs. Proprietary software in the development of products or commercial services, or dealing with particularly sensitive information. But in the academic humanities, the question of whether this is something that should really bug us. Is it really making ‘war on sharing’ to point out that there is a trade-off between (say) the ease of using ESRI Arc products versus GRASS, or if should really bother us. Stallman surely has a point when he says that big corporations make universities dependent on their products by providing cheap site licences, but if it provides a level playing field across the ac.uk domain, doesn’t this allow us to make better use of our fEC ravaged budgets? And if Autodesk wants to burrow into the code underneath MiPP’s reconstructions using some clever Trojans that they installed alongside our software without telling us, then good luck to them. They could save themselves the effort by simply downloading it from our website, where we make it available for free.

Other highlights of the Festival included a hugely entertaining talk by David McCandless on data visualization. Rather reminiscent of Stephen Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s Freakonomics, McCandless’s thesis is that any data, anywhere, can be visualized in some way. Well worth checking out his website.  Also were Arjan Haring and  Maurits Kaptein from Persuasion API, talk on the science of persuasion. I guess I need to get some advice from them on writing grant applications.

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