LCA day 4 – On freedom

January 23, 2012 Technical, General

It goes without saying that Linuxconf is all about free software, as in both beer and/or speech. A number of today’s talks focused on freedom, in the context of access to data and code, and the freedom to use software (and hardware) the way you see fit.

We actually had two great keynote talks on freedom, I’d like to step back to yesterday’s talk by Karen Sandler (you can see the talk for yourself on on youtube, which I’d highly recommended). Karen was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a heart condition that means she could suddenly die at any time. Thankfully there are treatments available, one of which is a pacemaker.

Being the person she is, she immediately asked “what software does it run?”. Long story short, the manufacturer ended up stonewalling on the issue, refusing to provide code or further details even with an NDA. Noone had ever asked before, and everything was pushed back with assurances that the devices are safe, and that they’re approved by the FDA.

It might seem like a trivial matter, but it’s a big deal if you step back and consider it. This device is implanted in your body to regulate your heart. In the event of cardiac arrest, your life could be 100% dependent on it functioning properly. I think it’s safe to say that failure is unacceptable.

Okay, you say, but they work very well for a lot of people. This is true. But the devices are known to be imperfect – putting aside the issue that they may not function correctly when needed, there are clear concerns regarding malicious access by an attacker. There’s published research for this on both pacemakers and insulin pumps for diabetics.

The hard questions clearly irked a lot of people, including her doctor, who was greatly upset that she’d even be asking such things. The practical concerns did eventually win out (though she was able to get an older, less advanced device), leading to this statement:

I became a cyborg lawyer with proprietary software connected to my heart.

Switching focus to social networking, Bdale Garbee (possibly best known for free beards) has been working on FreedomBox, personal servers for social networking. The immediate need for another social network isn’t obvious – the key here is the storage and control of your own personal information. It’s your data, it should be kept on your terms.

As it stands, your data in Facebook/Google+/FoospaceEtc. could be stored anywhere in the world. For all the privacy policies and statements, you don’t know where that information is, or who really has access to it (think of legal jurisdictions). Designed with tiny “plug computers” in mind, this decentralisation should make it feasible to run your own server from home. Whether Australian internet will ever be up to the job is another matter…

There’s a lot we could go on about but for lack of time. In all, it was a very successful conference: a talk was given, ponies were node’d, a mobile phone was sent towards the stratosphere on party balloons, and Project Horus had their own successful launch. Next year we’re off to Canberra for LCA, hope to see you there!