While free and open source technologies offer an alternative, the real solution can only be achieved politically: Free Software activists

Whistleblower Edward Snowden’s latest rounds of revelations on the U.S.s’ National Security Agency’s worldwide snooping programmes have drawn sharp reactions from around the globe.

The sharpest of them came from the Brazilian government that has proposed plans to delink from the U.S.-centric Internet and ordered that all data of its citizens be stored locally. This, technologists argue, could fragment the Internet— a network spread across the globe but with controls largely vested within the U.S., and largely controlled by private companies. Brazil’s reaction comes following reports that not only was citizens’ data, resting on servers owned by Internet companies, spied on, but there were also clear commercial motives behind hacking into oil companies owned by the State.

At a meeting held at the office of the Free Software Movement of Karnataka here on Sunday, technologists and social scientists discussed whether there was a way to turn the clock back on this compromised technological system. Does the fix lie in technology, politics or commerce, asked free software activists, who believe that the time is ripe for a movement to free the global Internet, akin to the movement that was started over three decades ago to free software from the clutches of proprietary interests or big businesses.

There is this saying that if a service is free, then you’re likely the product, points out Sharath M.S., a software hacker and FSMK member.

He points out that while some users may be comfortable with trading their info for a service they like, Snowden’s exposes have shown that it is not about personal data anymore but a matter of national sovereignty. Closer home, he says, a programme such as the Indian Central Monitoring System (CMS), which automates surveillance of citizens, is also problematic and must be protested.

Parminder Jeet Singh, executive director of Bangalore-based NGO ‘IT for Change’, said that the CMS issue is an internal one and must be dealt with differently. “Yes, CMS advocates and sets up the infrastructure for the same kind of surveillance mechanism. But there is a difference. We can still go to courts and lobby against the system. The distinction is that with the NSA’s snooping there is no scope for recourse. This must be understood.” Mr. Singh emphasised that the solution for this broken system could only be political. “Yes, there are technological interventions that can be made, but the real change can only come by creating the political will, globally, to set it right.”

Technological fixes?

Discussing the many tools and services that could help people buck surveillance, technologists pointed to the wide and technologically-advanced world of free and open source software. Vignesh, a free software activist, said that while there is fierce debate among tech circles about whether Linux-based systems are truly free of code that enables surveillance, FOSS alternatives continue to be least intrusive. “The debates that followed the PRISM revelations brought to the fore the fact that even the Linux Kernel had code that is contributed by the NSA. However, one can take solace in the fact that the open source ecosystem is fairly rigorous and organised and it is not easy to penetrate something as important as the Linux Kernel.”

Alternatives

Mr. Vignesh took the audience through a long list of alternatives that could help one log out of “compromised proprietary systems”.

For instance, instead of using Android, you can opt for Cyanogen Mod, a fork of Android which is stripped of all code related directly to Google. Another option is Replicant, a free Android distribution that is based on Cyanogen Mode.

Taking the example of popular mobile app TruCaller, another FSMK member, explained how people were conned into sharing their entire contacts list in exchange for the benefit of avoiding spam calls. “It is clear that what they are doing is building a huge database of names and phone numbers that can clearly be monetised. In addition, it can map who talks to whom. To put it in simple terms, it’s creepy,” he said. He said that people who wish to opt out of dubious apps can download from F-Droid, a free and open source alternative to the Google Play Store.