The Fight for Digital Sovereignty

Posted by Sunil Abraham at Oct 25, 2013 07:30 AM |
It is time to incorporate free software principles to address the issue of privacy. Thanks to the revelations of Edward Snowden, a former contractor to the United States (US) National Security Agency (NSA) who leaked secrets about the agency’s surveillance programmes, a 24-year-old movement aimed at protecting the rights of software users and developers has got some fresh attention from policymakers.

The article was published in the Economic & Political Weekly, Vol-XLVIII No. 42, October 19, 2013


The free and open source software movement (often collectively labelled as FOSS or sometimes FLOSS, with the “l” standing for “libre”) guarantees four freedoms through a copyright licence – the freedom to use for any purpose, the freedom to study the code, the freedom to modify it and the freedom to distribute the modified code gratis or for a fee. Free software principles have permeated the world in the form of movements around open standards, open content, open access and open data. The second freedom is the most critical in an open society. Privacy, security and integrity are best achieved through the transparency guaranteed by free software rather than the opacity of proprietary software.

Free software is directly useful in deciding on the software required for your device operating system and applications. NSA’s surveillance programme covered operating system vendors like Microsoft and Apple, and application vendors like Skype. The concerns raised by such surveillance programmes are best addressed by shifting to free software. Increasingly, this is possible on mobile devices because of the availability of Android derivatives that keep Google’s nose out of your business and on other personal computing devices through GNU/Linux distributions such as Ubuntu. Ideally, this should be accomplished by a mandate for government and public infrastructure in specific areas where free software alternatives are on par with proprietary competitors. Two other policy options remain outside procurement policies for hardware – code escrow and independent audits. Firms that are willing to share code with the government should be preferred over those that do not, thereby encouraging proprietary software companies to provide for the second freedom in free software within a limited context. Code escrow could improve the quality of the independent audit.

Unfortunately, open hardware based on free software principles is still a fringe phenomenon in terms of market share. The Indian government cannot afford bans on foreign products, unlike the intelligence and military of Australia, the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand, which recently prohibited the use of Lenovo machines in “secret” and “top secret” networks. Last October, the US government banned US telecos from using equipment from Huawei and ZTE. Both these bans are not based on any credible public evidence regarding back doors in any of the products manufactured by these Chinese companies. The Indian government, using funds like the Universal Service Obligation Fund, should support competitive research to reverse-engineer and analyse all foreign and indigenous hardware to ensure that there is no national security threat or infringement on the individual’s right to privacy. One example would be a research project to determine whether China-manufactured phones call home when they are used on Indian telecom networks.

Cloud and other online services run by corporations could also completely undermine privacy and security. This again can be partially addressed through the transparency enabled by free software and open standards. To begin with, the government must ban the use of Google, Yahoo, Hotmail, etc, for official purposes by those in public office, law enforcement and the military, while simultaneously mandating the use of cryptography for all sensitive material and communication. It should not, however, mandate the use of National Informatics Centre (NIC) infrastructure as it may be a single point of failure; instead, a variety of open-standards-compliant and free-software-based infrastructure for all public sector information communication technology (ICT) requirements should be encouraged. This procurement bias will result in the growth of domestic server administration and security competence, thus creating and contributing towards the establishment of a market for affordable privacy and security-enhanced services that ordinary citizens and private sector organisations can access.

The end objective through means such as free software, open hardware, code escrow and independent audits is sovereignty over software, hardware, cloud and network infrastructure. However, the state, the private sector, the consumer and the citizen may disagree on the details. Apart from law enforcement and national security concerns that may require targeted surveillance, there are other occasions when technological possibilities may have to be curtailed through policy to protect human rights and the public interest. For example, to implement the internationally accepted privacy principle of notice on electronic recording devices, some jurisdictions may require that video recorders display a blinking red light and that digital cameras make an audible click sound just like analog cameras. This was first initiated in South Korea to reduce the incidence of “upskirt photography”. This type of law may become more commonplace when technologies like Google Glass become more popular. In other words, absolute digital sovereignty may need to be curtailed in order to protect human rights in certain circumstances. But code could be used to resist regulation through law, thereby converting both the software and hardware layers of devices and networks into a battleground for sovereignty between the free software hacker and the state.

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