Without free software and hardware, privacy is impossible

The recent revelations about the NSA’s wide-ranging surveillance of Americans and non-Americans alike has spurred a lot of outcry. Of course, some people are crying for legal solutions, but there’s absolutely no chance of any present or future elected official changing or stopping it (it’s already completely illegal and always has been, so more laws can do nothing but poke loopholes in existing laws forbidding surveillance).

We’re on a road that leads to only one place: total, absolute government monitoring of everything we do – and thus, to some extent, control of everything we do. I’m not a conspiracy theorist or right-wing nutcase. It’s just a simple fact that any reasoning person should be able to deduce from a little objective examination of history and a smidgen of logic.

This is really serious. We are (and have been for years) hovering on the brink of a sudden plunge towards a truly Orwellian society, with progress heading that direction pretty steadily. What are you going to do about it?

The only way to stop surveillance is to encrypt things and make surveillance impossible. Not just impossible for some people. It needs to be impossible for everyone, which means it has to be based on math that’s essentially unsolvable (this is how encryption works). If they can do it, they will do it.

The only way to make decryption impossible is with encryption and decryption systems that are designed to have no possibility of central control. If there is any kind of central control or access to the system, your government will seize that and use it.

The only way to trust those kinds of systems is for them to be made wholly of open-source, free software. No amount of proprietary-ness or obscurity brings security. This is because if there’s any type of hidden or secret knowledge about how to use or build the system, someone has an advantage, and that advantage will be held by those who shouldn’t have it.

The only way to trust the software is if it’s running on trustworthy hardware. You can run the highest encryption you wish, but you can’t read what’s on your screen unless your computer’s hardware and software decrypt it to show it to you. That means that your computer’s software and hardware has access to the decrypted information. And if there’s any back door in the hardware, it’s untrustworthy and will be exploited.

This is why I continue to be a Free Software Foundation member. Vote with your wallet and join the FSF today. It’s a tiny organization with fewer than twenty staff who’ve made an incalculable difference in your freedom today. Without the FSF I have no doubt we’d already be significantly further down the road to the total monitoring and control of normal citizens’ everyday lives.

I’ll end this post with the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. – Fourth Amendment, US Constitution That amendment was written for damn good reasons based on horrific abuses of power by governments through the ages. Think about it.

I'm Baron Schwartz, the founder and CEO of VividCortex. I am the author of High Performance MySQL and many open-source tools for performance analysis, monitoring, and system administration. I contribute to various database communities such as Oracle, PostgreSQL, Redis and MongoDB.