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Richard Stallman: Snowden leak a chance for privacy, time to fight Big Brother

July 15, 2013 09:30

US software freedom activist and computer programmer Richard Stallman (AFP Photo)

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Snowden and Assange besieged but not defeated, while privacy has a better chance now than it had before. We talk to freedom activist and free software developer Richard Stallman, who believes the fight against the total surveillance on the part of the governments is far from over.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:

Our guest today is Doctor Richard Stallman, software freedom activists, recently inducted in the internet hall of fame, joining us live from Brussels. It’s really great to have you with us today, Dr. Stallman.

Richard Stallman:

Thank you.

Sophie Shevardnadze:

Now, we know that you don’t own a phone – why is that?

Richard Stallman:

I do have a phone, but it’s not a mobile phone. The reason is. Mobile phones are surveillance and tracking devices. The phone system is constantly finding out where the phone is, and they generally keep a record of this, for months or years – and that information is available to Big Brother, very easily. I consider that oppressive. But there’s the worst – they can be remotely converted into listening devices, because the software in the phone, even if it’s not a Smartphone – it’s a computer with a software that can be changed remotely, through what’s called a “back door”, which means it receives commands from somebody else to do something, and what this “back door” can do is install software changes without asking supposed owner of the phone. This has been used to remotely convert them to the listening devices. The book “Murder in Samarkand” by Craig Murray describes one example of this. So, basically, once it’s converted, it listens all the time and it transmits all the time, and if you try to turn it off – well, it doesn’t really turn off, it pretends to be off and continues listening and transmitting. And this is part of why…

Sophie Shevardnadze:

Then what are you using – how do people get in touch with you?

Richard Stallman:

Well, mostly through email. I also have a phone in my office. In cause I am not there, people can phone the free software foundation which will then connect them with me in one way or another – so people do reach me.

Sophie Shevardnadze:

If the NSA wanted to track you down right now – they wouldn’t be able to trace you?

Richard Stallman:

Not so easily. I am not trying to prevent an investigation of me, I am not against the ability of the state to investigate people when there are some grounds, suspicion that they can take to the court, and say “please approve various kinds of searches of this person” – that needs to be done, because we need a state to do a lot of things, including catching criminals and prosecuting them. Unfortunately, the plutocratic states today, they only want to catch the small criminals, the giant criminals, they are too big for jail. But, we do need that, and I don’t want to make that impossible – what I object to is making a dossier about everyone all the time, because then, if the state wants to get somebody, even for a bad reason, the state can get tremendous amounts of data, and can always find something to punish that person for.  So, we should design our digital systems so they are not recording data about everybody all the time. They should be able to start recording data about somebody when a court gives an order to investigate that person. They shouldn’t make a giant dossier of months or years of information about everybody.  Because that starts to resemble what secret police did, and I guess, in fact, still does in lots of countries.

Sophie Shevardnadze:

You’ve been saying this for many many years – you’ve been talking about PRISM-like programs five, ten years ago. Snowden made that point right now – and everyone is now up in the air with it, going crazy about the revelations… How does it make you feel, that nobody listened to you?

Richard Stallman:

I am very happy, that Snowden told us what the U.S. government and some other governments are really doing. I had no proof - I’ve been saying for many years that if we look at the Pa-Triot Act – I won’t call it “patriot” because its as unpatriotic as you can get in a country based on a idea of freedom – I said, “look at this, I would guess that they are collecting all the data about everyone, regularly, fast enough so it doesn’t get erased between collections – but that was just a guess. Thanks to Snowden, we know that in some cases, specifically phone calls, the U.S. government is actually doing this, and we know that there are other governments that do surveillance without even the flimsy limits of the U.S. governments – so I’m tremendously happy to see that Snowden has called the publics attention to this injustice, because our cause now has more momentum, we might, maybe, be able to stop this.

Sophie Shevardnadze:

How far can this surveillance system with such political support, and as gigantic as this, be rolled back?

Richard Stallman:

I don’t know!  You see, this depends on you. This depends on the people who are watching.  I am not interested in asking “are we going to win?”, “can we win?”.  I am interested in doing whatever I can to win.  Our freedom is at the stake, and this is true for people all around the world. I would guess that every country is increasing surveillance through digital technology, to a level that is unprecedented in a world’s history.  Unless we had a great insufficiency of surveillance before, we should regard this as intolerable. We must start rejecting the so-called internet services that demand to know all about us. So don’t use facebook for instance. There are some services that are important, and we need to make sure that the surveillance that they can do on people is limited.

Sophie Shevardnadze:

We’re going to talk about facebook a little bit later. When this whole surveillance scheme was uncovered, everyone was in shock, I was disturbed – but at the end of the day everyone is, like, “okay, there’s nothing we can do about it”, and we continue using facebook, and we are thinking we are not doing anything wrong... People around me, I am talking about them – people keep thinking, we are not doing anything wrong, so what’s wrong about being looked after?

Richard Stallman:

First of all, this idea, that if you’re not doing anything wrong you have nothing to hide is ridiculous. Lots of people have things they want to hide from somebody. Some people, for instance, are gay, and in certain countries they might get prosecuted for that. You might think that you do something that your boss wouldn’t like if he knew, maybe he wouldn’t like what party you vote for. Lots of people have reasons not to want everybody to know everything about them. With total surveillance, though, the state knows everything, and some companies know everything and they call tell it whomever they want. So, if you want to have the possibility of some privacy someday,  you’d better join the fight now, because now a bunch of other people are joining the fight, now is the moment, when you can make a difference. If you wait until the day you wish you had some privacy and only then try to do something…well, that day you will be one a few people doing it and that won’t be enough. You’ve got to help make a critical mass when other people are doing it – and that’s now.

Sophie Shevardnadze:

But what if you end up like Assange or Snowden, I mean, look at these guys – they are outcasts, they are trapped, facing charges.

Richard Stallman:

Well they are not outcasts. Assange is not an outcast, millions of people including me admire him, and Snowden is not an outcast, millions of people in the U.S. and elsewhere admire him...Please, don’t exaggerate. They have been besieged by the empire, but not defeated.

Sophie Shevardnadze:

But they are so limited in their life, in what they do...

Richard Stallman:

They decided to take these risks – for our freedom. But, they can’t win by themselves; it’s up to us to carry the fight forward. And in any case, by the way, Snowden will find a way to get the asylum.

Sophie Shevardnadze:

Companies and the government – how close are they? Are they one with the other, what is driving the relationship there?

Richard Stallman:

There’s no simple answer, but they work hand in hand. In the U.S., thanks to the Patriot Act, all the data that companies collect about people they are required to turn over to the FBI without even a court order. The FBI just has to say “we want this data, we say it’s relevant to something” and then the company has to turn it over secretly. So any time a company is collecting data about you, it’s collecting it for its own purposes, but also for the state. So we must consider that corporate surveillance about us is a part of state surveillance – of course, both options are bad, I don’t want companies have tremendous amounts of information about me either, and I generally don’t use the services that would give them that information.

Sophie Shevardnadze:

You’ve said earlier “Don’t use Facebook” – talking about social media, platform people use to communicate with each other – it is not all that bad, right?

Richard Stallman:

Its horrible. Facebook is a monstrous surveillance engine…

Sophie Shevardnadze:

Is there an alternative?

Richard Stallman:

When people take photos of me, I say “please, don’t photos on Facebook”. At the beginning of my speeches I say “If you take photo of me, please don’t put it on Facebook”.

Sophie Shevardnadze:

What’s an alternative for facebook or other social media?

Richard Stallman:

An alternative? Are you demanding an alternative that is very similar to facebook? Because that’s not my alternative. My alternative to a nasty system is just don’t use it. If you start with a premise that you have to use one of those things, so if they all are nasty I just have to pick one, well, you are basically deciding to loose in advance. I don’t use facebook and I don’t want an alternative to Facebook.

Sophie Shevardnadze:

But it connects people, and what about those who were saved by a mere tap of a button – it’s a good thing, no?

Richard Stallman:

So what?

Sophie Shevardnadze:

People are connected to the world…

Richard Stallman:

Sorry, but people can be connected in lots of ways. But, from what I’ve read, by the way, the book “Alone Together” is very interesting, what people do in Facebook, they carefully construct a false picture of themselves.

Sophie Shevardnadze:

I gather that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates aren’t exactly your heroes, but do you acknowledge their contribution in bringing so many people together and creating this global community? They embraced and nurtured innovation, huge progress.

Richard Stallman:

Malicious technology can’t be excused if it had some good effects. We’ve got to realize that first of all Microsoft and Apple software is proprietary. That means the users don’t control the program, rather than the program controls the users – well that’s an injustice. And the existence of proprietary, although it wasn’t for Microsoft or Apple back then, is why I started with free software movement. In addition to setting things up so that they control the program and the program controls the users, they started putting in malicious functionality that spy on users, intentionally restrict users, and there are even “back doors” in that software, so, literally speaking, Apple and Microsoft software are malware.  Windows 8.1 we call “Windows Prison Edition”, because it’s designed to require people to send data to Microsoft servers, and of course, Microsoft will handle any of that data to the U.S. government on request. It puts the users in prison. That’s the nastiness that is the natural result of letting a company to have a control over the software that the users are running instead of the users themselves. So – no, I wish they hadn’t done anything. Although I realize, somebody else might have done it if they hadn’t, that’s no excuse for them doing it.

Sophie Shevardnadze:

Can free software generate the same level of digital innovation that proprietary software has done?

Richard Stallman:

I don’t know, I think it’s a secondary question. I think freedom is more important than innovation. And when you look at the a lot of the innovations that proprietary software generates, they are harmful, like X-Box One, which has camera that’s designed to determine who is in the room, how many people there are at least, where they are looking at the X-Box. That’s an innovation – one that we shouldn’t stand for. Of course, the X-Box is nasty in lots of ways before that. This is an example of how it is a mistake to make innovation our goal.

Sophie Shevardnadze:

Do you think that people had voluntarily traded their freedom for gadgets and form?

Richard Stallman:

Well, partly – yes, but remember that companies are steering them by saying “You could have this convenience but only if you let us be nasty to you in that way”. And, yes, people who are not sensitized to the issue, they might say “yes”, but there’s no fundamental reason why this convenience has to require that nastiness. It’s that a company figures maybe they can get you to accept that nastiness by attaching it to this convenience. Now, if had control of how things were built, we could have this convenience in most cases without that nastiness. Sometimes it’s difficult, but mostly, they are connected artificially. So the point is that we need more control over our technology.

Sophie Shevardnadze:

You’ve said innovation should be our primary goal, but secondary. Does it mean that personal success should also not be the people’s priority?

Richard Stallman:

I think it’s a mistake. I may mean for something higher… I want to live a life I would be proud to have lived.

Sophie Shevardnadze:

But not everyone, by their nature, is a freedom fighter. You can want a personal success and be a decent human being…

Richard Stallman:

Who knows? I wasn’t a freedom fighter until 1983, and if you’d met me in 1970 you would never have guessed that I had that it in me, and I wouldn’t have thought I had it in me. Anybody can surprise yourself.

Sophie Shevardnadze:

Can you ever see free software superseding or replacing proprietary software?

Richard Stallman:

I don’t know, it depends on you basically, depends on when you have a practical decision to make, whether you say “I’ll use this proprietary program because it does something for me that I want to do today” or will you say “No, I won’t use it because the price is my freedom and that’s too much to pay”.

Sophie Shevardnadze:

All I am asking is that if the free software is all that great, and it’s out there, why does so few people use it?

Richard Stallman:

Partly because of social inertia. You’ll notice that most PC’s are sold with Windows already in them. That’s a current flowing towards Windows and most people let themselves be carried by this current. Schools are teaching people proprietary software whether it’s from Microsoft or Apple, it doesn’t matter, they are both bad. The point is that with so much current artificially generated, people have to swim against it if they want to get to freedom. Not everybody is determined enough. We, in our free software movement, we try to make it easier for people; we try to change the current. Will we win? Who knows! The point is – let’s do our best.

Sophie Shevardnadze:

Your key project is the GNU project aimed at giving people complete freedom over their software. You launched it in 1984. Thirty years down – would you say it has been a success?

Richard Stallman:

Partly. Lots of people use the GNU Operating System, because GNU is an Operating System, and no computer will do anything without an operating system in it. In fact, millions of people use GNU operating system, but mostly they don’t know it, because they think its Linux. Linux is actually one essential component that’s used in the system today, so it’s really GNU + Linux. Yes, we achieved our initial goal, and we had a considerable success – but we haven’t liberated everybody…

Sophie Shevardnadze:

Kim Dotcom says he wants to encrypt half of the Internet – can you give me and our users some quick tips on how to encrypt e-mail, to protect myself and my privacy?

Richard Stallman:

We have free software for encrypting email or other files, and you shouldn’t trust any encryption program unless it’s free software, and encryption is being done by your copy on your computer. Encryption on a server is not trustworthy.  How do you know they are not saving a copy before they encrypted it and giving it to NSA?  So you got to encrypt it on your machine. Our program for doing this is called the GNU Privacy Guard or GNU PG.

Sophie Shevardnadze:

I see you are wearing a little sign that says “Don’t be tracked, pay cash”. Do you always pay cash?

Richard Stallman:

Just about always. I will use my credit card to buy airline tickets, as they insist on identifying me anyway; I don’t lose anything by paying with credit card then.

Sophie Shevardnadze:

What do you make of the whole bitcoin concept?

Richard Stallman:

Bitcoin seems like a solution to some problems, but it’s not anonymous. I think we need a payment system where the payer is anonymous. The payee doesn’t have to be anonymous, but it has to be so you can pay to access a webpage and do so anonymously.

Sophie Shevardnadze:

Is there such thing as complete anonymity?

Richard Stallman:

Well, there is in theory, but I’m not saying we need total anonymity; we need anonymity for the one who’s paying to access the website. However it’s okay if the website operators are not anonymous in receiving this money – after all we want them to pay their taxes.

Sophie Shevardnadze:

Dr. Stallman, what would you say to people, who in light of the recent events are saying “Privacy is dead, that’s it, and everything else is an illusion”?

Richard Stallman:

They are being defeatist. Or, maybe, they are suffering from a shock that leads them into despair. The fact is privacy has a better chance now, that it has had for the past decade or so, because now we have a lot of people who know that there’s a problem and how big it is. We need to establish sufficient privacy in our communications that a government official can talk to a journalist without being caught. That’s the amount of privacy that society absolutely needs if we want to keep control over what the government is doing.

Sophie Shevardnadze:

Dr. Richard Stallman, thank you very much for those interesting insights. That’s it for today; you were with Sophie & Co, and me, Sophie Shevardnadze. I will see you next time, thanks for watching us.


Comments (61)

 

funkytowel 23.01.2014 21:17

I've been using GNU/Linux for +7 years now, exclusively. No Microsoft in my house at all. I do admit I have a facebook acount, to keep up with my family.... It almost takes a rocket scientist to figure out all the privacy settings, but mostly I just set everything to "friends only" I only add actual friends and I don't like anything, nothing. I don't tell facebook about what movies, tv, books I like, nothing. And as you can see, I use Tumblr to comment on posts, and I have nothing at all on Tumblr, about me that is. If you use Facebook, use it just for family... keep the rest of the world out.

Anonymous user 23.07.2013 20:47

Great interview and some very interesting ideas!

Anonymous user 21.07.2013 03:40

Try telling an American to his face that the US Constitution is meaningless and see what happens.

View all comments (61)
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