Thursday, January 19, 2012

Technology and Activism

More and more, technology plays a very large part in activism.  Many movements are integrally tied to technology such as the Free Software Movement.  Others are not quite so significantly tied to technology such as Anonymous.  However, the days when rallies and protests were organized with paper and face-to-face communication is largely drawing to an end.

Today, the Internet and cell phone networks are the way to organize.  Facebook, Twitter, texting, and the web in general are what brought protesters to Zuccotti Park in droves.  This trend can only continue to increase in frequency and intensity.  Perhaps technology and communication can bring about a positive and substantive change in the world.


Anonymous was born on the Internet in what is still considered a shady underworld without any rules or restrictions.  Perhaps such a force could not have come from a place where participants would feel less free to explore the possibilities.  Today, Anonymous is everywhere, supporting other movements such as the 2010 and 2011 revolutions in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and several other middle eastern countries and the Occupy movement in the U.S.

Anonymous has broken free of the Internet and now lives and thrives in the real world.  An early example of Anonymous' influence offline was "Operation Chanology," a campaign against the Church of Scientology.  In more recent times, Anonymous has gained a near synonymity with the Occupy movement which makes itself very visible in the real world.

Anonymous still does at least as much of its activism online as it does offline, however.  In support of the Syrian uprising still ongoing, Anonymous launched "Operation Syria", a campaign of online attacks aimed at the Syrian establishment which is responsible for the massacre of many innocent Syrian citizens.

The Occupy movement

The Occupy movement may now be the most visible and significant ongoing protests in the western world.  It began with Occupy Wall Street in September 2011 with the goal of curbing the corporate influence on government and the imbalance of wealth in the U.S.  The issues the movement started with had little to do with technology or the Internet.

Recently, the Occupy movement has turned to technical issues with the possibility of the imminent passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act, a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives containing many draconian provisions such as allowing the U.S. Government to shut down large swaths of the Internet on mere suspicion of allowing for the infringement of copyrights.  This is strong evidence that technology is more important today to the real world than it has ever been in the past and that what goes on on the Internet is worth protecting with activism.

As I've mentioned, Anonymous and the Occupy movement are very much intertwined.  Anonymous symbols such as the Guy Fawkes Mask and the official unofficial Anonymous flag appear in virtually every Occupy-related venue.  The two support each other in numerous ways.  Anonymous takes direct action in support of the Occupy movement while the Occupy movement lends credibility to Anonymous which still struggles for legitimacy in the eyes of the populace.

Arab Spring

In December of 2010, protests began in Tunisia which eventually led to the fall of the oppressive Tunisian regime and the establishment of democratic elections.  The revolutions spread beyond the country's borders to Egypt, Libya, Syria, and many other Arab nations.

Throughout the uprisings, Facebook, Twitter, and other web services served to help the people organize, cell phone cameras recorded much of the events and retaliation from the dictators' regimes, and the Internet allowed the rest of the world to see on a much more grassroots level what exactly was happening.

So helpful was the Internet to the rebellions that some dictators such as Muammar Gaddafi of Lybia opted to cut off that resource to the countries entirely.  Anonymous, however, came to the rescue of some by subscribing in large numbers to cheap dial-up services and faxing the connection and authentication information to schools and other establishments in Libya, thus allowing them Internet access via the phone lines.

It's certain that technology will play a much larger role in every aspect of life including activism in the future.  There are dangers in technology, however.  In some cases, technology may be used against the masses almost as effectively as it may be used by the masses.  There are movements to reduce corporate, government, and other special interest influence on networks.  But, it still pays to be careful who you trust.

Monday, January 16, 2012

What's Wrong With Proprietary Software?

In the 1960's, Richard Stallman witnessed the rise of proprietary software when he was denied the source code for the firmware of a printer he was in charge of administrating.  Now, because of his work over the course of nearly 50 years, we have the option of running an entirely Free Software system without lacking the tools we need.

Why did he go to the trouble?

Proprietary software arose as a tool which large corporations could use to control and manipulate their users.  They used this control to obtain more money and in the process violated some of our basic rights as citizens of the digital age.

This post is about a few examples of how these violations affect users today.

How Does It Work?

Proprietary software, first and foremost, prevents users from knowing how it goes about accomplishing what it claims to accomplish.  Proprietary tax software cannot be examined to be certain it truly conforms to the tax laws it purports to help users with.  Proprietary antivirus software can't be examined for correctness.

For those users who are more concerned that their software works the way it advertises than they are about having someone to point the finger at when it breaks, not being able to look under the hood is not acceptable.  It should concern everybody that their electrical grids and cable signals may not be run by provably reliable software.

This opaqueness also prevents those wishing to learn about software from learning through example.  Children should have the benefit of knowing how their world works, including how their computer works.  Don't you think?

Can I Improve It?

Traditionally, when you purchase something, you obtain the right to do with it as you will.  This includes modifying it to function more effectively or more in line with the owners needs.  Car owners frequently modify their vehicles for appearance, gas mileage, horsepower, or any number of other purposes.  There are entire communities dedicated to modifying their game consoles.

However, proprietary software does not offer this basic right.  A user who wishes that the proprietary music player he uses included a "loop" feature cannot feasibly add such a feature.  A gamer who can't progress past a particular point in his favorite proprietary game cannot add new cheats to the game.

This places the users at the mercy of the software publishers and forces them to settle for software which doesn't fit their needs as well as it could.

How Do I Know it's Not Misbehaving?

Software which prevents users from scrutinizing it can get away with all kinds of dastardly behavior in secret.  One of the earlier examples was the sheer amount of identifying personal information the media player RealPlayer collected from the user's computer and sent back to the company which published RealPlayer.

Today, Google Chrome, one of the most popular web browsers, collects similar information from its users for advertising and tracking purposes.  Some software comes with advertising and spying software from third parties.

With the right tools, some of this misbehavior may be detected.  It's not easy unless you know where to look, however.  More alarming still is the fact that most users don't seem to so much as care what their programs are doing when they're not looking.

This is a small sample of the problems with proprietary software.  However, it's fairly easy to come up with numerous ways in which proprietary software violates a user's liberties.

More information on the topic of proprietary software and its negative effects on our liberties may be found at the website of the Free Software Foundation.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Are We In Control Of Our Machines? Part 2

In part one, I talked about how to go about using only free software on your desktop or laptop computer, mostly leaving other consumer electronics out of the conversation.  Hence, part 2.

Most people in the developed world have a multitude of computers around them.  Most people don't even consider most of these computers to be computers, though some are more similar to laptop and desktop computers than others.

Just to name a few examples of the computers which surround us, most of us own a gaming system, cell phone, television, car, several set top boxes, kitchen appliances, networking and computer paraphernalia, and a multitude of other devices which contain embedded computers.  As a software engineer, it makes me uncomfortable that I don't really know what these devices do while I'm not looking.  And as a software engineer, it makes me think there must be a better way.

Why Is It The Way It Is?

Hackers are busy people, and their time is valuable to them.  They tend to work on what has the most payoff.  That doesn't usually describe flashing the firmware on their microwave ovens.  It does however describe flashing the firmware on their routers and game systems.  As a result, there are several GNU/Linux distributions made for routers such as DD-WRT and OpenWrt and for all of the major game consoles, there is a "homebrew" project soon after release.

In short, we hackers who are interested in exercising control over our devices choose our battles.

Which Devices are Lacking Free Software?

As I see it, the important devices which have yet to bet touched by a significant amount of user-controllable Free Software are the majority of mobile phones, televisions, some set-top boxes, computer peripherals such as scanners and printers, and automobiles.

Mobile phones have more control of our lives by the day.  They allow almost our entire lives to be tracked.  As many of you are already aware, it is possible for law enforcement to activate virtually all commercially available cell phones' microphones for covert surveillance.  Aside from the fact that this is a power law enforcement has not been able to exercise over citizens before, this back door is vulnerable to exploitation by malicious parties.  Why should we as owners of these devices allow this?

For televisions, the issue is more the fact that a television not in your control is one which you cannot use to its full capacity.  If your television has a sufficiently powerful embedded computer, and you wish to be able to play games from said embedded computer, there's no reason why you as the owner of the television should not be able to do this.

Set-top boxes have the capability of limiting your freedoms to do with your content as you wish.  Some already heed the "broadcast flag" which can prevent DVR's from recording content even from local broadcast television stations.

Among computer peripherals, printers are probably the most important devices to bring Free Software firmware to.  Virtually all commercially available printers print virtually invisible dots on every page which may be used to track down the printer on which it was printed.  The potential for abuse here is also great.

And, finally, automobiles' firmware touches on issues of safety, privacy, and efficiency, among others.  With vulnerable firmware, a vehicle may be unsafe.  Many vehicles these days have GPS built-in, making privacy a concern.  And, the firmware has a strong effect on the feul efficiency as well.

Many other such devices exist which users have a need to be able to control.  However, we must choose our battles and focus on the highest-priority devices first.

What Can Be Done?

For many, porting a GNU/Linux distribution to an embedded device such as a mobile phone or a set-top box is not an insurmountable task.  If you're interested in porting GNU/Linux to an embedded device, I can recommend the Gentoo Embedded Handbook.  If you have other resources for interested parties, please post them in the comments.

In some cases, Free Software has been brought to devices without porting an operating system to them.  For instance, the Nintendo Wii has the Homebrew Channel.  This not an operating system, but it does allow for writing software for the Wii (as well as installing at least a couple of different GNU/Linux distributions.)  For information on this type of approach, Andrew "Bunny" Huang's book "Hacking the Xbox" is an excellent resource.

Until next time, happy hacking.

Are We In Control Of Our Machines? Part 1

Thom Holwerda over at OSnews published a very enlightening article recently entitled "Richard Stallman Was Right All Along".  It expresses a viewpoint which I've had for quite some time.  I believe that if a person has purchased a computer, s/he should be in complete control of it and should have the ability to do with it as s/he sees fit.  Proprietary software is an impediment to that ideal.

That said, I don't have that kind of control over all of my hardware or software.  I use almost no proprietary software on my computers, but my non-x86-derivative machines such as my Nintendo Wii and my cell phone are mostly opaque to me.  I allow this because one cannot truly take part in society without such things as a cell phone or Adobe Flash.

But how close could one come to the ideal, what would one have to live without if one came as close as possible, what could be done to fill in gaps in functionality for those unwilling to use proprietary software, and how much work would be involved?

How Close Are We?

Very close, actually.  The bits which we can't do without proprietary software are minutia as opposed to foundational.  This certainly was not the case when the GNU project was young.  One may reasonably use their computers without much proprietary software.  People who use mostly proprietary software largely do so because they have developed a dependence on proprietary software and are unwilling -- not unable -- to move to mostly Free Software setups.

The exceptions I can think of are:
  • Reasonable 3D acceleration for some graphics card vendors
  • Adobe Flash
  • Firmware and BIOS
The first of these may be mitigated by purchasing graphics cards for which there are drivers which support 3D acceleration (such as Intel).  Even the second can be largely mitigated with (incomplete) Free Software Flash implementations such as Gnash.  For YouTube in particular, there are some video players such as Minitube.

What Would We Have to Live Without?

The first answer to this question which rings in my head (and that of many of my readers, I'm sure) is "gaming," of which I myself do a fair amount.  Many of the games I play are Free Software.  I've spent a good deal of time playing Crossfire MMORPG, Nexuiz (which is now proprietary, but there is a community fork of the latest Free Software version called Xonotic), OpenTTD, and even Frets on Fire.  However, many of the games I play are proprietary.  Right now, I'm nearing the end of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.

Many of the really popular games don't have a Free Software alternative.  There are strong efforts to correct this, but there is still quite a way to go.  One major deficiency I've noticed is that Free Software gaming seems to be lacking when it comes to the "plot-driven" genre.

How Can We Improve This?

As mentioned, much work is already being put toward efforts to resolve these issues.  The nouveau project aims to make a fully functional replacement for the official Nvidia drivers for the Nvidia graphics card chipset.  Please do consider putting some of your effort into such projects if you can.

Gaming is an interesting challenge, however.  You can't exactly make an open-source Legend of Zelda game.  And you certainly can't write the same Legend of Zelda game as has been released by Nintendo.  To do so without risking litigation from Nintendo would require developers to write the engine, artists to produce models and textures (but they couldn't be *too* similar or they would infringe on Nintendo's copyright), and lawyers to make sure the legal aspects were taken into account properly.

Obviously, one option would be for those interested in Free Software gaming to write the kind of games they most like without infringing in any way and make them as high quality as the proprietary alternatives.

There might be an interesting loophole which could be taken advantage of to produce Free Software versions of proprietary games, however.

The game Frets on Fire is a clone of the popular game series "Guitar Hero."  It supports importing the playable songs in Guitar Hero I and II directly from the official game disks.  This allows gamers in practice to have largely the same game experience without using proprietary software as they would playing Guitar Hero I or II on the Playstation 2.

Why couldn't this be done for many other games?

Suppose one were to write a clone of (for instance) the Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword game engine without any art or plot elements from the original game and include a feature which would fetch said game elements from an official game disk inserted into the DVD-Rom drive.  The 3D Legend of Zelda game engines are in fact similar enough that one could most likely create one game engine which would support importing its content from any or all of the 3D Legend of Zelda games.

Unfortunately, even this is not exactly legal (at least in the U.S.).  Wii games, and games of many previous game systems as well employ DRM to prevent users from using the content on the disk.  The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (a U.S. federal law enacted in 1998) makes circumvention of DRM criminalized the act of circumventing DRM.  Hence, even if one circumvented DRM in this way but did not in any way infringe on Nintendo's copyright, this scheme would require U.S. users to commit a felony.  However, for those governed by laws which do not make circumvention of DRM illegal, this would be an excellent way to allow gamers to have the experience of playing such games without using proprietary software.

This still feels like the right direction to move, however.  Perhaps with enough support, an exemption in the DMCA could be made a reality for this kind of use.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where I plan to speak about how we can be in control of consumer electronics products which are not x86-derivative.