Free and Open Source

Nowadays, everyone wants a slice of your data. It seems like every device — from spying smart home devices (Alexa or Google Home) to the apps on your phone — wants to hear every word you say. Facebook, its subsidiary Instagram, and Google have made it their business to know as much about you so they can sell access to your eyeballs in particular. In general, the applications companies publish are riddled with security and privacy problems, but fortunately, these companies aren’t the only source of new and useful programs. Instead, we should use programs and systems that don’t want to steal our information.

Privacy and security concerns are often dismissed with the phrase “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” While you may have nothing to hide, you still benefit from having privacy in ways ranging from convenience to survival. A stalker could find out where you work from a Google leak; A company can plaster every website you visit with the same asinine advertisement. A tech-savvy burglar could use your doorbell camera to determine when you leave your apartment, without any possible recourse from you and at little risk to themselves. Living inside the panopticon even changes how you behave. And worse, Facebook tracks you even if you haven’t consented to being watched by them. Google and other companies haven’t admitted to it, but big data is big business. The cheapest way to gather more information is to take it without consent, so they likely operate in the same ways.

Zoom, a video conferencing platform, only got serious about security once it entered the public eye, as demonstrated by recent problems and their subsequent acquisition of a major cybersecurity firm. Companies do not have a financial incentive to practice proper privacy and security protocols because the penalties are inconsistent. De jure it’s very hard to prove whether a company acted inadequately in securing one’s information. Sometimes it’s not even obvious where the data came from. Worse, there aren’t established rules as to how to punish companies even when they are tied to a breach. 

Companies have questionable development incentives: the alternative is to use free and open source applications. For an average consumer, “Free and Open Source” (FOSS) means two things. “Free” means that the software is not only free of cost, but also free of restriction: you can remix and modify it as much or as little as you want: if you like a feature you can import its code into another program with some hobbying. In contrast, companies typically prevent anyone from modifying or improving their programs. “Open Source” means that you can look at the underlying code of a program. Unlike proprietary corporate programs, which usually keep the source code secret to hide problems, open source programs can be scrutinized by anyone. This means bugs and flaws can be found more quickly.
People developing out of pure interest or the goodness of their hearts seems like a pipe dream. Yet the immensely complex Unix operating system and its derivatives, which are all free and open source, run most of the servers on the internet. R, LaTeX, and Zotero are also free and open source, and indispensable in academia. The internet itself came from government investment, not corporations. These systems operate just as well or better than their proprietary counterparts. A lot of people are invested in making them work, so that they band together to maintain these programs. Think about it: If you’re concerned that hackers can also examine the source code, consider: would you rather have a lock that independent experts call secure, or one that only the seller calls secure?

If you want to try using FOSS tools, look at some of these tools: