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You are here: Home Bulletins 2013 fall Why the FSF must oppose bulk surveillance

Why the FSF must oppose bulk surveillance

by John Sullivan Contributions Published on Feb 10, 2014 06:20 PM

In a letter mailed out to our supporters around the world this past spring, I highlighted the need for the FSF to respond to the revelations about the U.S.'s National Security Agency (NSA) spying on the phones and electronic activity of people both inside and outside of the United States.

The FSF sees this bulk surveillance as a free software issue. These revelations are part of what inspired RMS to announce at the GNU 30th anniversary hackathon and celebration in Cambridge, MA, that the GNU System would be taking on a new priority to help minimize the harm done to users as they interact over networks.

Our organization helped pioneer a worldwide free software movement and provides an umbrella of legal and technical infrastructure for collaborative software development internationally. We advocate for the freedom, privacy, and autonomy of computer users, primarily by making sure that the software running on their computers is fully under their control.

Free "as in freedom" software users choose their software on ethical grounds according to these concerns, similar to the way many vegetarians reject meat or labor activists reject sweatshop clothing. Because free software is developed collaboratively and often by grassroots communities, it is a force for social change. Its developers are very aware of what corporate and government interests are being challenged with their software.

The revelation of our phone records to the government will result in harassment, membership withdrawal, discouragement of new members, or other consequences that objectively suggest an impact on, or "chilling" of, our members' rights to associate freely.

Many of our supporters are software developers working on operating systems, such as GNU/Linux, to be used instead of operating systems developed by Microsoft or Apple. Unlike those proprietary operating systems, all of the code for GNU/Linux is publicly available for inspection and modification. A widespread motivation for developing software this way is to make it very difficult for "backdoors," such as those now known to be part of Microsoft Windows, to be introduced by the government or corporations.

Even though their work is legal, because these developers know that their work may complicate government surveillance efforts, they are concerned about being targeted. A key organizational function of the FSF is to serve as an important point of contact and coordination between developers. If we cannot promise the confidentiality of our communications, this category of our supporters will think twice before associating with us or with other members through us.

Other of our software developer members are working in areas that are legally controversial. They work on free software to protect anonymity online, or to circumvent technological protection measures in order to access copyrighted works to which they have a legal right, or on encryption software that, while legal, may be used by criminals as well. These members are even more concerned about the privacy of their communications, living in fear that their work may be misconstrued as illegal.

But, since one of the basic requirements of free software is that its source code be available to its users and since free software development so often happens in public in order to facilitate effective and efficient collaboration, why do we care if our communications are monitored? As one of our members has told us directly:

"While I do work very openly in my day to day life in free software, and I am quite clearly an outspoken advocate of free software, and the free software movement, the fact that private communications may be turned over to the government would result in a sort of chilling effect.

For instance, I would be reluctant to ask the FSF questions about the legal status of code with federal regulation, such as the implications of distributing cryptographic software under the GNU GPL, or questions regarding privacy software, such as Tor, for fear it may implicate me later, when someone else misuses such software. It would place me in an awkward situation, one where I cannot ask a question about software without being lumped into a group which may misuse such software. If I have misgivings about such things, as an open and outspoken free software contributor, I fear what the pseudo-anonymous contributors to free software communities must think."

This chilling effect extends beyond our members who are software developers, to members who are also just free software users and advocates. Many of our members, when they joined, have cited our work to support software that respects their privacy and freedom as a primary reason for their association. Any revelation that their communication with us is being monitored discredits us as an organization and a movement capable of protecting the very interest that motivated them to associate with us. As a concrete example, some of our supporters are hesitant to attend the annual LibrePlanet conference we host in the United States, explicitly because of surveillance. We are exploring options to host it elsewhere and to encourage remote participation, but we also should work against the causes of this hesitation.

Finally, this chilling also affects our current staff and ability to hire new staff, who accept modest pay rates in order to do a job they feel can make a positive difference in the world. Knowing that doing this job puts them in the crosshairs of government surveillance is a powerful deterrent that threatens to make working for us just not worth it. Anything that complicates our ability to attract and retain quality staff directly undercuts our mission of building a strong association of free software supporters.

Since the disclosure of the various illegal NSA surveillance programs, we have lost the ability to assure our members and constituents, as well as all others who seek to communicate with us, that the fact of their communications to and with us will be kept confidential. We were able to make assurances of confidentiality prior to the disclosure, but they were illusory.

Moreover, the pattern of distortion and lawless conduct by the NSA, exacerbated by the intense secrecy of its activities, has left us unable to reassure our members and associates that additional forms of surveillance, as yet unconfirmed or actively denied by the government, are not also occurring, leaving us with no alternative forms of confidential communication. This is extremely damaging for us, because the success of our movement depends concretely on the ability for dispersed individuals to collaborate freely and openly.

Often there is a temptation for the FSF to get involved in social and political causes that are unrelated to free software. We avoid that, because we view free software as a necessary baseline for any kind of computer-using political advocacy to be effective and autonomous. We make sure to take only positions that are necessary for the free software movement.

Using both policy and technology to resist the kinds of surveillance that have been exposed is one of those fundamental positions. It is necessary to take this position in order to preserve the ability for free software developers and advocates to work safely and effectively, and for us to do our job on behalf of that movement as an organization. To that end, we have joined the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in filing a lawsuit against the NSA, we have announced new development priorities within the GNU System, and we have stepped up our advocacy campaigns to show the computer-using public around the world how using free software is an important step toward protecting their privacy and freedom.

If you are a current or potential FSF member and are concerned about this issue, I would really like to hear firsthand about your concern. Please email to get in touch.

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