Proprietary software is always untrustworthy: Beware “smart” devices

Recently “smart” TVs (TVs with microphones and/or cameras running proprietary software) came back into the news:

and one dismissive article from which referred to the article’s republication as “shrill” and concluding “No updates or additional information occurred between the original controversy and renewed interest in it in 2016.”.

The article was originally from 2015 and republished again in 2016 but that’s hardly the most important part of the news. Whether the collected data is distributed commercially or given away gratis is also not the most important point. The important part is to alert computer users to how easy it is for devices to spy on them, record anything in mic/camera range, distribute those recordings to others, and index that information for later use.

People have come to expect that certain areas of their lives are private, and they are free to behave naturally. One should have private places, one needs privacy to live a full and dignified human life. But if a device with monitoring equipment in it is operated by proprietary software (user-subjugating software; software the user is not free to run, inspect, share, or modify at any time for any reason) the user can’t trust the software does what the user wants. Thus one’s cell/mobile phone may be listening in on the mic and storing and/or sending a copy of what’s in mic range without the user’s knowledge or consent. The same may be true of the camera, GPS unit, or cell/mobile radio (which is also used for geolocation). Hence cell/mobile phones are more honestly called “trackers” as that is their primary function and the function they do most frequently.

These devices can be made more trustworthy if they run on exclusively free software. But most of the devices in the so-called “Internet of things” (devices that connect to the Internet, often needlessly, including some refrigerators, light sockets, and electronic picture frames) run on proprietary software. In fact, Brad Kuhn points out “the dystopia of Minority Report needs proprietary software”.

People typically have TV sets in their bedrooms pointed at their bed so they can watch TV from bed. People are often naked in bed and sometimes having sex. Putting this together means if their TV is a “smart” TV, or if they have a tracker next to them on the nightstand while they’re naked possibly having sex, they become inadvertent porn stars for those who gain access to the data captured by their “smart” devices. If a representative from, say, Nuance Communications, Inc. (the party that handles audio data from Samsung “smart” TVs) asked to watch while they disrobed and had sex it’s a safe bet most people would refuse. But if they can get access to the data from a sufficiently empowered device running untrustworthy software, they can get much the same information by way of a copy of a recording.

  • Who else gets copies of these recordings? There’s no clear way to tell.
  • What might one do with these recordings? It’s impossible to know, just as one can’t be sure what one would do with old newspaper articles. Refer to them later, to be sure, but in what context? Trying to embarrass someone perhaps to extort something from them? Hold something over them as a means of letting them know their secrets are out? Something else? We can’t say for sure, but we can say that it should be up to the user whether such recordings should have been made in the first place.
  • What can one do to avoid this risk? Avoid devices that run on proprietary software. Beware any device that attempts to let you control it by voice or gesture without a button to initiate voice/gesture control. The only way to implement the kind of voice control seen in ‘Star Trek’ where one merely talks to the computer is to have the computer monitor everything. When proprietary software is in control of the monitoring one can’t be sure what happens to the monitored data.

Why it’s important to keep up the principled fight

When you’re promoting something you believe to be strongly advantageous for the public (fighting for environmental improvement, writing and publishing free software, speaking against the loss of civil liberties, etc.) it’s critical to do your research so you know what you’re talking about, formulate specific plans of action, and continue working on those interests even when the prevailing forces wax and wane in support of the same ideas and goals. This entry mainly concerns the last point: without consistent pressure one can easily be dismissed for playing favorites (being a “fair weather friend”).

For example:

  • The documentary “Cowspiracy” argues an interesting point often ignored in mainstream discussions about environmentalism—no consumer action aimed at conserving resources (e.g., shower less frequently, fix leaky pipes, bike more, recycle more, and drive less) can compete with ending animal agriculture. According to the movie, environmental groups don’t fight to end animal agriculture even though water use problems, problems caused by the end of species, problems with cutting down forests, and greenhouse gas production are chiefly caused by animal agriculture. So pushing others on consumer issues is simultaneously ineffective, a distraction away from a real issue, and likely to annoy others for no real gain. All to keep the business of donating to environmental groups going, avoid challenging well-organized money behind big agriculture, and give people the false idea that they can individually spur environmental improvement with personal choices.
  • The open source developmental methodology advocates for increased access to source code but doesn’t present any real objection to software proprietors. That’s because open source wasn’t designed to present any such objection. Open source, a right-wing reaction to free software, formed over a decade after the free software movement began and was designed to give software businesses (chiefly proprietary software developers) a public relations-friendly means of talking to developers by dropping the freedom talk found at the center of the free software movement. Thus even if a software proprietor granted users none of the freedoms of free software a proprietor could claim some affiliation with something that sounded like was in the user’s interest even though proprietary software is never in the user’s interest. In the environmental movement a similar form of covering the truth is called “greenwashing” and Brad Kuhn pointed out in his 2016 talk on copyleft that he calls this same disingenuousness “openwashing”. Virtually every story carried by the (overwhelmingly corporate) tech press and tech repeater sites (Hacker News, Slashdot, etc.) comes down to the same issue—a lack of software freedom is dangerous. But these sites are run by open source enthusiasts. Therefore they encourage readers to think about maximizing profit, arcane details about features, and branding—issues which never bring software freedom to mind.
  • The American left usually let Democrats pick horrible choices without complaint, even if those same choices raise suspicion or protest when backed by Republicans. During President Obama’s two terms he killed lots of people by drone attack. Most of the victims were innocent people who happened to be in the area of the bombing. There weren’t any sustained marches about this and many Americans seem unaware this happened at all, not extrajudicially chosen for death by Obama himself. In 2017 Donald Trump was sworn in as president. In his first month he killed an 8-year-old child, the sister of 16-year-old Abdulrahman whom Obama killed in a prior attack. Obama killed Abdulrahman two weeks after killing his father, Anwar al-Awlaki. In the most recent attack, President Trump’s Navy’s SEAL Team 6 used drones for cover and executed a raid which killed 30 people, including 10 women and children and among them was Anwar al-Awlaki’s 8-year-old daughter who was shot in the neck and killed. In a statement, Trump mentioned no civilian deaths. CNN, obedient stenographers that they are, also made no report of civilian deaths. American protesters on the left built a history in Obama’s terms of not organizing around extrajudicial assassination. This history makes it difficult to distinguish between caring about such attacks for their own sake (a principled objection) and being upset that their preferred candidate didn’t win the electoral votes needed to become US President (a partisan objection we can legitimately dismiss out of hand).

On the latter point, consider what Jeremy Scahill said in 2013 (remote: 1, 2) about the attacks against journalism that would later become another major part of the Bush/Obama legacy: (emphasis mine)

The message that the state is sending is that journalists are only allowed to print official statements, whether they are from public officials saying them publicly, or it’s being stated in off-the-record briefings, or in strategic leaks. They are trying to criminalize real journalism. They are trying to criminalize whistleblowing. And this has sent a chill through the community of reporters who cover national security issues, and it has sent a chill through the community of people who work within government that were considering speaking up. If journalism is criminalized, and if whistleblowing is criminalized, then how can we say that we have a free press in this society? It means we don’t actually have a free press. It means that something that is enshrined in the Constitution, the right to a free press, actually doesn’t matter. And I think we’re at a moment right now because of who the President is; where we risk this becoming a permanent reality in this country.

We all know that under Bush and Cheney they were engaged in warrantless wiretapping, their foreign policy looked like Murder Incorporated, there was certainly a war against journalists and a war against dissent. But it’s easy to be against those policies when cartoonish villains like Bush and Cheney are in office. When your actual principle is tested, meaning what you actually believe, is when someone like President Obama is in office. When it’s the liberals that are sending you the hate mail. When you have the tenacity to continue on and say “You know what? This is a principle, not a partisan game. This isn’t a game at all. This has everything to do not only with the future of this country, but with the stability and independence of nations around the world. I believe journalists have an obligation to stand up and defend one another when any of them are under attack. And what has happened to Glenn [Greenwald] and other journalists who dared to report outside of the consensus of the Washington clique is reprehensible, and journalists should be ashamed of themselves.”.

The recent history of inaction from the American left helps us separate the wheat from the chaff, those who objected when an ostensibly more agreeable (though really only differently scary) president was in office from those who raise objections under President Trump. It’s a shame, really, because some critics raise valid issues (see any of the episodes of “News from Neptune” or “AWARE on the Air”) but have to hope for coverage while less articulate liberals get coverage complaining that their pro-war, bank-fueled, 1% representative didn’t run a competent enough presidential campaign to take office.

Glen Ford: “There is no such thing as a progressive movement that is also pro-war.”

Glen Ford of the highly recommendable Black Agenda Report talks about what the American progressives need to do and avoid in an interview with The Real News (transcript) (you can avoid running non-free Javascript by using youtube-dl to download the video and watching with a free software video player).

There is no such thing as a progressive movement that is also pro-war.
And there is no such thing as a progressive movement that is aligned
with the CIA. And yet, that is exactly, exactly the position that the
Democratic Party is taking, including its black luminaries, such as
Congressman John Conyers, and Congresswoman Maxine Waters, and even
Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who is considered to be the most left-wing
person on Capitol Hill. All of them are busy attacking from the right,
the very right-wing president, Donald Trump. And any fool should know
that countering right-wing politics with even more right-wing politics
can only lead to a disastrous and definitively right-wing result. You
cannot create a progressive movement out of a McCarthyite, anti-Russian,
pro-war propaganda campaign such as the Democrats are waging now and
which they have now enlisted the support of lots of people who call
themselves progressive. And even some who consider themselves to be

Any movement that takes its cues from the CIA is a danger, not only to
world peace, but it is a danger to itself. It’s a danger to the very
civil liberties that a progressive movement claims that it’s trying to
defend from the likes of Donald Trump. And, frankly, it’s just plain
stupid and it’s stupid in a very peculiar and very American imperial
kind of way.

We could do a lot of good reallocating billions of dollars away from killing people in wars and toward buying out HMOs (in order to end their dominance against universalizing Medicare), giving the homeless homes, repairing infrastructure (which also includes jobs), establishing a guaranteed annual income, and funding many other projects including free software development and spying-free hardware development (such as POWER-based systems for desktop/server use and low-end systems for high portability) which run on 100% free software.

Racist, sexist screeds are no match for assassination

On the 2016-04-28 “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore”‘s panel came close to painting a fair picture of Donald Trump versus President Barack Obama as ever while still missing the mark in a significant way: Nobel Peace Prize laureate Obama sends out drones to kill innocents weekly while Trump is a sexist, racist ass with no record of killing someone.

The panel on Wilmore’s show that night included Wilmore, Nightly Show contributors Rory Albanese and Holly Walker, and CNN’s Bakari Sellers. They played a clip of a recent Trump speech and then talked about the clip:

Wilmore: Okay, some people, some of your people (gestures toward Sellers) I would say, felt his tone seemed more “presidential”. I mean, to me it seemed more like he [Trump] was in a 5th grade remedial reading class of prompters or something.

[Crowd cheers, applauds.]

Walker: Yeah.

Wilmore: Why is the bar set so low for Donald Trump?

Sellers: I think that’s unfortunate because I believe when people are presidential then they have a lot less sexism, a lot less bigotry, a lot less racism, but Trump embodies all those things. So I don’t think that his speech was presidential, in fact, I think it was the antithesis of everything he talked about — it was chaotic, it didn’t make any sense, and it lacked any details.

Wilmore: So it was very ‘Trumpian’.

Sellers: It was Trump. It’s like we give him credit for being able to read.

[Walker laughs.]
Walker: Yeah, yeah.

Wilmore: That’s what I’m saying! Why is he getting credit for that? He barely read that.

Walker: The bar is set so low because when you’re a snake you don’t need a high bar.

[The crowd ‘oohs’.]
Walker: That’s right I said it.

Albanese: I know this won’t be popular to say but the bar was set low for Obama: Obama got a Peace Prize, like, a month in. He didn’t even do…

Sellers: He was a black guy that won President of the United States…

Albanese: That’s not deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize. He should have given that back and said “If I’m worthy in eight years, I’ll take that prize”.

Wilmore: Obama was criticized for speaking beautifully passionately and for inspiring millions even in Germany where people didn’t know what the fuck he was saying…

Albanese: Inspiring Germans isn’t always a good thing.

The problems with this abound:

  • Obama was killing people in Afghanistan while accepting his Nobel Peace Prize. He’d go on to extrajudicially kill people with drones for nothing more than suspicion of wrongdoing (based on the judgment of a known-lying US Government) including killing Americans and killing children via drone attack. Waiting 8 years and re-evaluating the Nobel Peace Prize would have been wise; giving the award as soon as they did made it look like Obama won for not being George W. Bush despite continuing Bush’s wars and expanding on them in places such as Yemen.
  • Albanese is right although he never spelled this out completely—overcoming racist adversity while committing politically-motivated murder, nor speaking “beautifully passionately and for inspiring millions” ought not be deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize; that bar is set way too low. The Nobel group would have been better off waiting for the end of Obama’s term to re-evaluate giving a war criminal a Peace Prize.
  • We should ask what, precisely, were these millions were being inspired to do: follow in Obama’s footsteps with more war? rightly points out that both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders agree that war making is right and proper:

    Bernie Sanders presents no such threat to Empire. He supports President Obama’s illegal drone wars and the 15-year occupation of Afghanistan. Should he somehow be elected president, Sanders would follow Obama’s practice of reserving Tuesday’s for choosing targets from his “Kill List.” To circumvent U.S. and international prohibitions against assassination, Sanders offers the same “self-defense” justification as the Israelis do, when they slaughter Palestinians by the thousands. “There are people out there who want to kill Americans, who want to attack this country, and I think we have a right to defend ourselves,” Sanders told Chris Hayes, of MSNBC.

    The nominally socialist senator from Vermont claims that he differs from Hillary Clinton on foreign policy because she “is too much into regime change and a little bit too aggressive without knowing what the unintended consequences might be.” During the New Hampshire debate, Sanders said the ouster of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein “destabilized the entire region” and the overthrow and death of Muammar Gaddafi “created a vacuum for ISIS” in Libya. “Yes, we could get rid of Assad tomorrow,” Sanders told the crowd, back in February, “but that would create another political vacuum that would benefit ISIS.”

    His leftish boosters clung to these utterances as proof that Sanders was, deep down, a peaceable kind of guy, in sharp contrast to “Queen of Chaos” Clinton. Tuesday, however, as he was losing four of five primaries, Sanders showed that he is no less a warlord than Barack Obama – who, like Sanders, based his “peace candidate” appeal on his 2002 opposition to the Iraq invasion. Obama announced he was sending 250 more U.S. Special Forces troops into Syria, supposedly to fight ISIS and to arm and train more of those elusive, damn-near-extinct “moderate” rebels. It doesn’t bother Sanders a bit that the U.S. presence on sovereign Syrian soil is illegal, an act of war, as is U.S. funding and training of fighters attempting “regime change.”

  • Where was the mainstream press righteous indignance when Obama semi-jokingly threatened to kill the Jonas Brothers (a band Obama’s daughters liked) by sending out drones to attack them as he said he could do at the 2010 Washington Correspondents Association dinner (“…but boys, don’t get any ideas. Two words for you: predator drones. You will never see it coming. You think I’m joking?”)? The thing that makes this joke go from tastelessly funny to semi-sincere threat is that Obama is one of the people who can actually make this happen and has a history of killing children in this way (Anwar al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, for example). Or when White House Press Secretary and senior adviser to the Obama reelection campaign Robert Gibbs said al-Awlaki should have “had a more responsible father” after the US killed al-Awlaki’s son, 16-year-old American citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. Since Wilmore & Company are so interested in taking bad speech to task, why don’t they repeatedly give these far more heinous quips their due? It wouldn’t take much to find the clip and play it every time they ought to remind the audience of the true context in which Trump says his nasty quips. Could it be that comedians who love to complain about Trump don’t want to put Trump in a larger context?

I find these points to be far more salient to a proper examination of Trump’s bellicosity and all too typical of the horrible politics of these awful comedy news programs (John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, and Larry Wilmore, all coincidentally connected to “The Daily Show”): semi-articulate defenses of hideous behavior usually conveyed through profoundly poor priorities. They’re not even entertaining in their own right since they often repeat the same news clips (due to their narrow look at the already too-narrow allowable range of corporate media debate) they end up frothing about the same events with only minor variations on the same jokes.

Trump has said and stood behind horrible behavior at his rallies, he is not worth anyone’s vote. But it diminishes the real harm to complain so much about his detestable speech while a murderous US president carries out war crimes. Give Trump blame for what he says and whom he ejects from his rallies, give the Trump rally abusers blame for their choices too. People are fully capable of and should be expected to choose to listen to racist, sexist screeds, then decide Trump is an ass and leave it at that. But the main focus has to be the current power—punching up. After all, Trump isn’t saying anything new or radically different than what has come before him as policy from people far more powerful than Trump has ever been. Trump is really being chastised for not covering his bigotry in sufficiently distractive flowery language.

It’s hardly respectful to those killed in US-backed assassination campaigns to get too angry over bigoted language and a few instances of unwanted arm-grabbing and punching, as horrible as those actions are. What really lowers the bar of expected US presidential behavior is glossing over Obama’s weekly planned assassinations, and the US government not really knowing who is killed in its attacks. If any other country did what the US does in these drone attacks, we’d call them terrorists.

Comedy news shows’ indignance against Trump leaves no room to get angry over context-setting Obama’s “Terror Tuesday” meetings, or the predictable repercussions of bombing people; consider Noam Chomsky’s description of the 2016 Brussels bombing (around 1h9m7s; consider using youtube-dl to download the movie instead of running Google’s proprietary Javascript):

What happened in Brussels was a monstrous terrorist act, but it’s worth looking at the explanation that was given for it. ISIS took credit for it and issued a statement which basically said: ‘As long as you keep bombing us, we’re going to respond by attacking you.’. There’s something to that. There’s a real problem and we have to make a decision as to how to deal with it. One decision we can make is to follow the playbook that Al Qaeda and ISIS have presented and want us to follow, and they’re very explicit about it: Destroy your own societies, destroy your own freedom and liberties, and get into a war with the Muslim world. That’s their playbook. We can accept that if we like. We’ve been doing it for 15 years. […] There’s another possibility: We can try to get to the roots and causes of it and deal with them. That’s not dramatic and exciting, but it would work. And there’s plenty of research that tells us why people turn to terrorism. […]

Chomsky’s entire response and the rest of the talk from Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and Noam Chomsky are well worth anyone’s time to hear in their entirety.

Keep that in mind next time you feel the desire to let someone get you worked up over Trump’s latest widely-reported racist and sexist screed: your anger and (more importantly) your activism have better targets.

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Please become a Software Freedom Conservancy Supporter by committing to regular monthly payments. You can become a supporter for as little as $10/month, or pay annually instead (monthly support automatically renews, so I imagine it’s more helpful to the SFLC). You can donate in a number of ways including wire transfer, credit card, or paper check.

The SFLC’s work is critical to let everyone know that free and open source licenses need to be taken seriously so they can be viewed with respect.

Apple/FBI debate is false dichotomy

Here’s a comment I tried to add to The Intercept’s article on John Oliver’s Apple ad about protecting data:

The worst part of the debate is the unchallenged and not-widely-examined false dichotomy here: Apple (who is said to care greatly about security yet sells proprietary software users aren’t allowed to inspect, share, or modify; who once let an iTunes bug with security ramifications go unfixed for over 3 years; who hands over data stored on its server to the government (per the piece) versus the US Government (who wants easier access than tapping chokepoints on the Internet).

Neither side is interested in what’s in the user’s best interests: software freedom (meaning users are free to run, inspect, share, and modify the software at any time for any reason), paying for ongoing service such as post-sale service for hardware and help, and buying hardware the users can fully and completely own.

Apple, like all other proprietors, loves monopoly. Proprietary security software (regardless of proprietor or purpose) is untrustworthy by default. Apple iThing users have no friends in this debate.

Vulgarities are no match for state-sponsored ruining aquifers, delaying universal single-payer healthcare, supporting dictators, and murder

In what has become an ugly pattern (1, 2) John Oliver’s show frets over vulgar language and remains silent about others who commit substantive crimes.

As recently as last week, Oliver decried Donald Trump endorsing war crimes—”When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families.”. Two Republicans (one elected, one running for office) recently said vulgar and ignorant things:

I am the face of the Re-Pube-Licking Party.

I like boobies.
—two posts from Robert Morrow, Chairman-elect, Travis County, on his Twitter feed posted 48 hours after being elected.

The dinosaurs on [Noah’s] ark may have been babies and not able to reproduce. It might make sense to take the small dinosaurs onto the ark instead of the ones bigger than a bus.
—Mary Lou Bruner, Texas State Board of Education candidate speaking for herself on her Facebook page.

This week Oliver credited the national Republican party which distanced themselves from these two Republicans saying they would be insignificant (“[Bruner would be] a human rain delay”) and “Robert Morrow in no way speaks for the Republican Party of its values.” and then Oliver asked:

But doesn’t he though? Because in this election cycle it would be a lot easier to argue that your party shouldn’t be judged by people who spread weird Obama conspiracy theories and brag about their dicks if that didn’t also describe your presumptive nominee for the Presidency.

Which means we should feel free to evaluate the Democratic Party and its presumptive nominees for the Presidency (whose actions are rarely scrutinized on the show) by their choices. It’s not hard to do so as there isn’t that much to choose from.

The Democratic party isn’t opposed to tactless quips: Clinton’s response (a response CODEPINK describes as “sociopathic“) to the extrajudicial murder of Muammar Gaddafi, “We came, we saw, he died.” draws little examination then or now even though she was in power and on-duty when she said it in a televised interview. The Democratic Party apparently likes war (Sen. Clinton voted for the 2003 Iraq war), trashing water supplies in the name of big business commerce (Clinton doesn’t mind fracking), doing whatever they can to appease the HMOs and prevent universalizing the US’ extant single-payer healthcare delivery system (Clinton is a long-time backer of this in various guises dating back to her days as First Lady through her interviews where she insists universalizing Medicare is not possible), propping up dictators (Democrats and Republicans have done this for decades), and killing people (including Americans) in drone attacks justified with mere suspicion of wrongdoing (no published evidence, no public trial) as well as members of their families who are suspected of doing nothing wrong (Secretary of State Clinton participated in this).

The US government (led by the Democratic Party nominee) only now might release data on the death toll and this won’t include details on innocents killed:

“The Administration plans not to say how many innocents it thinks it killed in any strike—it will only offer a bland ‘aggregate assessment’ of innocent dead,” said Cori Crider, Reprieve attorney for drone strike victims. “Contrast this to last April, when the President named—and apologized—for the deaths of two innocent Westerners, Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto. To Yemenis and Pakistanis who live under US drones every day, the contrast could not be clearer.”

When matters are put this way these two parties look similarly horrific, neither uniquely worthy of scorn more than the other, neither deserving a lack of criticism.

FSF: EPA opposed DMCA exemptions that could have revealed Volkswagen Fraud

The Free Software Foundation tells us the scoop on this broadening scandal (emphasis mine):

Of course, just a few months after telling the Copyright Office that users couldn’t be trusted with access to their devices, the EPA revealed a major scandal involving Volkswagen. It turns out that Volkswagen had for many years cheated the emissions test performed by the EPA. Volkswagen had surreptitiously included some code in their diesel vehicles that would detect the EPA’s tests and have the car change its performance in order to meet EPA mandates. Once the test was over, the code would revert the vehicle to its normal, high-polluting functioning. This scam apparently went on for years before it was detected by researchers.

Of course the irony is that if users and researchers had the right to access the software on their cars, they might have discovered this fraud years ago. As Eben Moglen, founder of the Software Freedom Law Center noted “If Volkswagen knew that every customer who buys a vehicle would have a right to read the source code of all the software in the vehicle, they would never even consider the cheat, because the certainty of getting caught would terrify them.” Volkswagen is already a contributor on the kernel Linux, and as Bradley M. Kuhn, President and Distinguished Technologist of the Software Freedom Conservancy pointed out it is likely that Volkswagen vehicles already contain some free software. But some is not all, and clearly they kept much of their software secret in order to hide their scam. If all the software on the vehicles was free software they never could have perpetrated this scheme.

Related links

VW’s fraudulent software points to need for copylefted free software

Recently it was announced that Volkswagen had since at least 2009 “cheated to make nearly half a million diesel cars appear cleaner-burning than they are” (source, local copy of original article text, article as originally seen).

The US government has it in their power to negotiate terms here. They could choose to negotiate that VW release its car software under the GNU GPL version 3 or later and give VW owners a chance to inspect and improve the software themselves, rather than leave the tools for more fraud in the hands of known fraudsters. VW could also choose to release the software under the same terms without being pressured into doing this; this will help them rehabilitate the “broken trust of [their] customers and the public” VW CEO Martin Winterkorn referred to. In fact this will help give them a leg up above their competition in the short and long-term.

In normal use, the VW diesel cars burned fuel in a way that allowed far more pollutants to enter the air. When tested, the same car would burn fuel far more cleanly in order to pass environmental tests:

During normal driving situations, the controls are turned off, allowing the cars to spew as much as 40 times as much pollution as allowed under the Clean Air Act, the EPA said. Such pollutants are linked to a range of health problems, including asthma attacks, other respiratory diseases, and premature death.

This is obviously fraudulent but how many people were adversely affected or killed by VW’s choice?

“I don’t suppose we’ll never know how many people died—asthmatics, for example—because Volkswagen designed its ‘clean diesel’ vehicles—all 482,000 of them sold in the U.S. since 2009—to burn dirty except when they were being tested,” wrote UCLA public policy professor Mark Kleiman at The Reality-Based Community blog on Friday.

Situations like these point to the need for strongly copylefted free software—software users have permission to run, inspect, share, and modify—in all the computers they own, such as software licensed under the GNU General Public License. VW being caught is the exception and this is hardly surprising; proprietary software is often malware. This would naturally include software in their vehicles. It’s critical that derivative programs must convey the same freedoms to its users so the consumer protection of software freedom is carried on.

Copyleft—a means of protecting the freedoms of free software for derivative works—is why mere “open source” is inadequate to the task. Any call for “open source” would purposefully fail to distinguish between copyleft and non-copyleft licenses. The open source movement was built to be silent on software freedom. A non-copyleft license would allow proprietary derivatives. If VW owners get more proprietary software as a result of this, they might get more fraudulence when they’re in a bargaining position to demand and expect justice and fairness. All computer owners deserve software freedom to help them avoid fraud and make their software run safely all the time, not just when being inspected. And don’t buy into any proprietor-friendly excuses of VW’s hands being tied by upstream program providers or regulatory restrictions—people’s lives are at stake and it’s important to prioritize what people need to live safely, ethically, and not pollute their environment unnecessarily.

Update (2015-09-25): reports that more information is coming to light which brings suspicion on more automakers—Audi, Porsche, BMW. It seems that comparable fraud and environmental damage are coming from BMW vehicles (“the BMW X3 2.0-liter diesel model spitting out 11 times more nitrogen oxide than the current level set by the European Union”). Basically, if your car has a computer in it, that computer probably runs on nonfree software. You, the car’s owner, deserve the right to run, inspect, share, and modify the software at any time for any reason. But only the proprietor does, hence the name “proprietary software”.

Related articles:

  • Wired magazine on a remotely-exploitable Jeep Cherokee as well as mention of exploits for Ford Escape and a Toyota Prius dating back to 2013, and word of a recall for the same Chrysler exploit and a lengthy list of vehicles with vulnerable software.
  • Tesla’s Model S software apparently allowed “shut[ting] the car down when it was driving“. Tesla claims to have fixed this in an “over-the-air update to Model S owners”, but without the ability to inspect the software only the untrustworthy proprietor can say what else the software allows (either pre- or post-“update”).
  • Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF): Researchers Could Have Uncovered Volkswagen’s Emissions Cheat If Not Hindered by the DMCA. Fleeting exemptions to the DMCA are mostly a waste of time[1, 2] since they quickly render whatever is done under them unreproducible using the same methods the original researchers used under the exemption. One could even convincingly argue such exemptions were designed to discourage filing for exemptions, possibly with a long-term goal of changing the DMCA to remove exemptions if exemption applications prove sufficiently unpopular. But one exemption the EFF filed for was recently objected to by the EPA—an exemption that would let people tinker with their car’s software. It’s worth noting that “the EPA is asking the Copyright Office to leave copyright law in place as a barrier to a wide range of activities that are perfectly legal under environmental regulations: ecomodding that actually improves emissions and fuel economy, modification of vehicles for off-road racing, or activities that have nothing to do with pollution” and cars that predate computerization could be modded to not obey ecological regulation, but the US has a long history of being reacting to this by inspections and fines. So there’s no reason to stop computerized car owners from fully modifying the cars they own. And the EFF is right when it concludes, “When you entrust your health, safety, or privacy to a device, the law shouldn’t punish you for trying to understand how that device works and whether it is trustworthy.”.

Happy Software Freedom Day!

I support free softwareSoftware freedom—the freedom to run, share, and modify the software on computers you own—is critical for an ethical way to operate a computer and retain control over that computer. Today is Software Freedom Day, a day for celebrating software freedom and spreading the message that software freedom is a value for its own sake. We should value these freedoms and insist that all of our computers run exclusively free software. Most computers come preloaded with nonfree software, software that lets someone else control our computing. This directly enables spying and remote control over our computer. Three cheers for Edward Snowden, and all of the government and business leakers who bravely gave us the evidence that non-freedom is used against us all in mass surveillance!

Here’s Richard Stallman, founder of the free software movement, with a clear definition of free software and why it matters:

So run free software on a fully-free operating system (such as any of these GNU/Linux systems) and have a happy Software Freedom Day!

More about Software Freedom Day