Recent blog entries for mjg59

This is not the UEFI backdoor you are looking for

This is currently the top story on the Linux subreddit. It links to this Tweet which demonstrates using a System Management Mode backdoor to perform privilege escalation under Linux. This is not a story.

But first, some background. System Management Mode (SMM) is a feature in most x86 processors since the 386SL back in 1990. It allows for certain events to cause the CPU to stop executing the OS, jump to an area of hidden RAM and execute code there instead, and then hand off back to the OS without the OS knowing what just happened. This allows you to do things like hardware emulation (SMM is used to make USB keyboards look like PS/2 keyboards before the OS loads a USB driver), fan control (SMM will run even if the OS has crashed and lets you avoid the cost of an additional chip to turn the fan on and off) or even more complicated power management (some server vendors use SMM to read performance counters in the CPU and adjust the memory and CPU clocks without the OS interfering).

In summary, SMM is a way to run a bunch of non-free code that probably does a worse job than your OS does in most cases, but is occasionally helpful (it's how your laptop prevents random userspace from overwriting your firmware, for instance). And since the RAM that contains the SMM code is hidden from the OS, there's no way to audit what it does. Unsurprisingly, it's an interesting vector to insert malware into - you could configure it so that a process can trigger SMM and then have the resulting SMM code find that process's credentials structure and change it so it's running as root.

And that's what Dmytro has done - he's written code that sits in that hidden area of RAM and can be triggered to modify the state of the running OS. But he's modified his own firmware in order to do that, which isn't something that's possible without finding an existing vulnerability in either the OS or (or more recently, and) the firmware. It's an excellent demonstration that what we knew to be theoretically possible is practically possible, but it's not evidence of such a backdoor being widely deployed.

What would that evidence look like? It's more difficult to analyse binary code than source, but it would still be possible to trace firmware to observe everything that's dropped into the SMM RAM area and pull it apart. Sufficiently subtle backdoors would still be hard to find, but enough effort would probably uncover them. A PC motherboard vendor managed to leave the source code to their firmware on an open FTP server and copies leaked into the wild - if there's a ubiquitous backdoor, we'd expect to see it there.

But still, the fact that system firmware is mostly entirely closed is still a problem in engendering trust - the means to inspect large quantities binary code for vulnerabilities is still beyond the vast majority of skilled developers, let alone the average user. Free firmware such as Coreboot gets part way to solving this but still doesn't solve the case of the pre-flashed firmware being backdoored and then installing the backdoor into any new firmware you flash.

This specific case may be based on a misunderstanding of Dmytro's work, but figuring out ways to make it easier for users to trust that their firmware is tamper free is going to be increasingly important over the next few years. I have some ideas in that area and I hope to have them working in the near future.

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Syndicated 2015-05-27 06:38:17 from Matthew Garrett

Reducing power consumption on Haswell and Broadwell systems

Haswell and Broadwell (Intel's previous and current generations of x86) both introduced a range of new power saving states that promised significant improvements in battery life. Unfortunately, the typical experience on Linux was an increase in power consumption. The reasons why are kind of complicated and distinctly unfortunate, and I'm at something of a loss as to why none of the companies who get paid to care about this kind of thing seemed to actually be caring until I got a Broadwell and looked unhappy, but here we are so let's make things better.

Recent Intel mobile parts have the Platform Controller Hub (Intel's term for the Southbridge, the chipset component responsible for most system i/o like SATA and USB) integrated onto the same package as the CPU. This makes it easier to implement aggressive power saving - the CPU package already has a bunch of hardware for turning various clock and power domains on and off, and these can be shared between the CPU, the GPU and the PCH. But that also introduces additional constraints, since if any component within a power management domain is active then the entire domain has to be enabled. We've pretty much been ignoring that.

The tldr is that Haswell and Broadwell are only able to get into deeper package power saving states if several different components are in their own power saving states. If the CPU is active, you'll stay in a higher-power state. If the GPU is active, you'll stay in a higher-power state. And if the PCH is active, you'll stay in a higher-power state. The last one is the killer here. Having a SATA link in a full-power state is sufficient to keep the PCH active, and that constrains the deepest package power savings state you can enter.

SATA power management on Linux is in a kind of odd state. We support it, but we don't enable it by default. In fact, right now we even remove any existing SATA power management configuration that the firmware has initialised. Distributions don't enable it by default because there are horror stories about some combinations of disk and controller and power management configuration resulting in corruption and data loss and apparently nobody had time to investigate the problem.

I did some digging and it turns out that our approach isn't entirely inconsistent with the industry. The default behaviour on Windows is pretty much the same as ours. But vendors don't tend to ship with the Windows AHCI driver, they replace it with the Intel Rapid Storage Technology driver - and it turns out that that has a default-on policy. But to make things even more awkwad, the policy implemented by Intel doesn't match any of the policies that Linux provides.

In an attempt to address this, I've written some patches. The aim here is to provide two new policies. The first simply inherits whichever configuration the firmware has provided, on the assumption that the system vendor probably didn't configure their system to corrupt data out of the box[1]. The second implements the policy that Intel use in IRST. With luck we'll be able to use the firmware settings by default and switch to the IRST settings on Intel mobile devices.

This change alone drops my idle power consumption from around 8.5W to about 5W. One reason we'd pretty much ignored this in the past was that SATA power management simply wasn't that big a win. Even at its most aggressive, we'd struggle to see 0.5W of saving. But on these new parts, the SATA link state is the difference between going to PC2 and going to PC7, and the difference between those states is a large part of the CPU package being powered up.

But this isn't the full story. There's still work to be done on other components, especially the GPU. Keeping the link between the GPU and an internal display panel active is both a power suck and requires additional chipset components to be powered up. Embedded Displayport 1.3 introduced a new feature called Panel Self-Refresh that permits the GPU and the screen to negotiate dropping the link, leaving it up to the screen to maintain its contents. There's patches to enable this on Intel systems, but it's still not turned on by default. Doing so increases the amount of time spent in PC7 and brings corresponding improvements to battery life.

This trend is likely to continue. As systems become more integrated we're going to have to pay more attention to the interdependencies in order to obtain the best possible power consumption, and that means that distribution vendors are going to have to spend some time figuring out what these dependencies are and what the appropriate default policy is for their users. Intel's done the work to add kernel support for most of these features, but they're not the ones shipping it to end-users. Let's figure out how to make this right out of the box.

[1] This is not necessarily a good assumption, but hey, let's see

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Syndicated 2015-04-27 18:33:44 from Matthew Garrett

Vendors continue to break things

Getting on for seven years ago, I wrote an article on why the Linux kernel responds "False" to _OSI("Linux"). This week I discovered that vendors were making use of another behavioural difference between Linux and Windows to change the behaviour of their firmware and breaking things in the process.

The ACPI spec defines the _REV object as evaluating "to the revision of the ACPI Specification that the specified \_OS implements as a DWORD. Larger values are newer revisions of the ACPI specification", ie you reference _REV and you get back the version of the spec that the OS implements. Linux returns 5 for this, because Linux (broadly) implements ACPI 5.0, and Windows returns 2 because fuck you that's why[1].

(An aside: To be fair, Windows maybe has kind of an argument here because the spec explicitly says "The revision of the ACPI Specification that the specified \_OS implements" and all modern versions of Windows still claim to be Windows NT in \_OS and eh you can kind of make an argument that NT in the form of 2000 implemented ACPI 2.0 so handwave)

This would all be fine except firmware vendors appear to earnestly believe that they should ensure that their platforms work correctly with RHEL 5 even though there aren't any drivers for anything in their hardware and so are looking for ways to identify that they're on Linux so they can just randomly break various bits of functionality. I've now found two systems (an HP and a Dell) that check the value of _REV. The HP checks whether it's 3 or 5 and, if so, behaves like an old version of Windows and reports fewer backlight values and so on. The Dell checks whether it's 5 and, if so, leaves the sound hardware in a strange partially configured state.

And so, as a result, I've posted this patch which sets _REV to 2 on X86 systems because every single more subtle alternative leaves things in a state where vendors can just find another way to break things.

[1] Verified by hacking qemu's DSDT to make _REV calls at various points and dump the output to the debug console - I haven't found a single scenario where modern Windows returns something other than "2"

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Syndicated 2015-03-12 10:03:52 from Matthew Garrett

It has been 0 days since the last significant security failure. It always will be.

So blah blah Superfish blah blah trivial MITM everything's broken.

Lenovo deserve criticism. The level of incompetence involved here is so staggering that it wouldn't be a gross injustice for the company to go under as a result[1]. But let's not pretend that this is some sort of isolated incident. As an industry, we don't care about user security. We will gladly ship products with known security failings and no plans to update them. We will produce devices that are locked down such that it's impossible for anybody else to fix our failures. We will hide behind vague denials, we will obfuscate the impact of flaws and we will deflect criticisms with announcements of new and shinier products that will make everything better.

It'd be wonderful to say that this is limited to the proprietary software industry. I would love to be able to argue that we respect users more in the free software world. But there are too many cases that demonstrate otherwise, even where we should have the opportunity to prove the benefits of open development. An obvious example is the smartphone market. Hardware vendors will frequently fail to provide timely security updates, and will cease to update devices entirely after a very short period of time. Fortunately there's a huge community of people willing to produce updated firmware. Phone manufacturer is never going to fix the latest OpenSSL flaw? As long as your phone can be unlocked, there's a reasonable chance that there's an updated version on the internet.

But this is let down by a kind of callous disregard for any deeper level of security. Almost every single third-party Android image is either unsigned or signed with the "test keys", a set of keys distributed with the Android source code. These keys are publicly available, and as such anybody can sign anything with them. If you configure your phone to allow you to install these images, anybody with physical access to your phone can replace your operating system. You've gained some level of security at the application level by giving up any real ability to trust your operating system.

This is symptomatic of our entire ecosystem. We're happy to tell people to disable security features in order to install third-party software. We're happy to tell people to download and build source code without providing any meaningful way to verify that it hasn't been tampered with. Install methods for popular utilities often still start "curl | sudo bash". This isn't good enough.

We can laugh at proprietary vendors engaging in dreadful security practices. We can feel smug about giving users the tools to choose their own level of security. But until we're actually making it straightforward for users to choose freedom without giving up security, we're not providing something meaningfully better - we're just providing the same shit sandwich on different bread.

[1] I don't see any way that they will, but it wouldn't upset me

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Syndicated 2015-02-19 19:43:04 from Matthew Garrett

Intel Boot Guard, Coreboot and user freedom

PC World wrote an article on how the use of Intel Boot Guard by PC manufacturers is making it impossible for end-users to install replacement firmware such as Coreboot on their hardware. It's easy to interpret this as Intel acting to restrict competition in the firmware market, but the reality is actually a little more subtle than that.

UEFI Secure Boot as a specification is still unbroken, which makes attacking the underlying firmware much more attractive. We've seen several presentations at security conferences lately that have demonstrated vulnerabilities that permit modification of the firmware itself. Once you can insert arbitrary code in the firmware, Secure Boot doesn't do a great deal to protect you - the firmware could be modified to boot unsigned code, or even to modify your signed bootloader such that it backdoors the kernel on the fly.

But that's not all. Someone with physical access to your system could reflash your system. Even if you're paranoid enough that you X-ray your machine after every border crossing and verify that no additional components have been inserted, modified firmware could still be grabbing your disk encryption passphrase and stashing it somewhere for later examination.

Intel Boot Guard is intended to protect against this scenario. When your CPU starts up, it reads some code out of flash and executes it. With Intel Boot Guard, the CPU verifies a signature on that code before executing it[1]. The hash of the public half of the signing key is flashed into fuses on the CPU. It is the system vendor that owns this key and chooses to flash it into the CPU, not Intel.

This has genuine security benefits. It's no longer possible for an attacker to simply modify or replace the firmware - they have to find some other way to trick it into executing arbitrary code, and over time these will be closed off. But in the process, the system vendor has prevented the user from being able to make an informed choice to replace their system firmware.

The usual argument here is that in an increasingly hostile environment, opt-in security isn't sufficient - it's the role of the vendor to ensure that users are as protected as possible by default, and in this case all that's sacrificed is the ability for a few hobbyists to replace their system firmware. But this is a false dichotomy - UEFI Secure Boot demonstrated that it was entirely possible to produce a security solution that provided security benefits and still gave the user ultimate control over the code that their machine would execute.

To an extent the market will provide solutions to this. Vendors such as Purism will sell modern hardware without enabling Boot Guard. However, many people will buy hardware without consideration of this feature and only later become aware of what they've given up. It should never be necessary for someone to spend more money to purchase new hardware in order to obtain the freedom to run their choice of software. A future where users are obliged to run proprietary code because they can't afford another laptop is a dystopian one.

Intel should be congratulated for taking steps to make it more difficult for attackers to compromise system firmware, but criticised for doing so in such a way that vendors are forced to choose between security and freedom. The ability to control the software that your system runs is fundamental to Free Software, and we must reject solutions that provide security at the expense of that ability. As an industry we should endeavour to identify solutions that provide both freedom and security and work with vendors to make those solutions available, and as a movement we should be doing a better job of articulating why this freedom is a fundamental part of users being able to place trust in their property.

[1] It's slightly more complicated than that in reality, but the specifics really aren't that interesting.

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Syndicated 2015-02-16 20:44:40 from Matthew Garrett

Hacker News metrics (first rough approach)

I'm not a huge fan of Hacker News[1]. My impression continues to be that it ends up promoting stories that align with the Silicon Valley narrative of meritocracy, technology will fix everything, regulation is the cancer killing agile startups, and discouraging stories that suggest that the world of technology is, broadly speaking, awful and we should all be ashamed of ourselves.

But as a good data-driven person[2], wouldn't it be nice to have numbers rather than just handwaving? In the absence of a good public dataset, I scraped Hacker Slide to get just over two months of data in the form of hourly snapshots of stories, their age, their score and their position. I then applied a trivial test:

  1. If the story is younger than any other story
  2. and the story has a higher score than that other story
  3. and the story has a worse ranking than that other story
  4. and at least one of these two stories is on the front page
then the story is considered to have been penalised.

(note: "penalised" can have several meanings. It may be due to explicit flagging, or it may be due to an automated system deciding that the story is controversial or appears to be supported by a voting ring. There may be other reasons. I haven't attempted to separate them, because for my purposes it doesn't matter. The algorithm is discussed here.)

Now, ideally I'd classify my dataset based on manual analysis and classification of stories, but I'm lazy (see [2]) and so just tried some keyword analysis:

Keyword Penalised Unpenalised
Women 13 4
Harass 2 0
Female 5 1
Intel 2 3
x86 3 4
ARM 3 4
Airplane 1 2
Startup 46 26

A few things to note:
  1. Lots of stories are penalised. Of the front page stories in my dataset, I count 3240 stories that have some kind of penalty applied, against 2848 that don't. The default seems to be that some kind of detection will kick in.
  2. Stories containing keywords that suggest they refer to issues around social justice appear more likely to be penalised than stories that refer to technical matters
  3. There are other topics that are also disproportionately likely to be penalised. That's interesting, but not really relevant - I'm not necessarily arguing that social issues are penalised out of an active desire to make them go away, merely that the existing ranking system tends to result in it happening anyway.

This clearly isn't an especially rigorous analysis, and in future I hope to do a better job. But for now the evidence appears consistent with my innate prejudice - the Hacker News ranking algorithm tends to penalise stories that address social issues. An interesting next step would be to attempt to infer whether the reasons for the penalties are similar between different categories of penalised stories[3], but I'm not sure how practical that is with the publicly available data.

(Raw data is here, penalised stories are here, unpenalised stories are here)

[1] Moving to San Francisco has resulted in it making more sense, but really that just makes me even more depressed.
[2] Ha ha like fuck my PhD's in biology
[3] Perhaps stories about startups tend to get penalised because of voter ring detection from people trying to promote their startup, while stories about social issues tend to get penalised because of controversy detection?

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Syndicated 2014-10-30 15:19:57 from Matthew Garrett

On joining the FSF board

I joined the board of directors of the Free Software Foundation a couple of weeks ago. I've been travelling a bunch since then, so haven't really had time to write about it. But since I'm currently waiting for a test job to finish, why not?

It's impossible to overstate how important free software is. A movement that began with a quest to work around a faulty printer is now our greatest defence against a world full of hostile actors. Without the ability to examine software, we can have no real faith that we haven't been put at risk by backdoors introduced through incompetence or malice. Without the freedom to modify software, we have no chance of updating it to deal with the new challenges that we face on a daily basis. Without the freedom to pass that modified software on to others, we are unable to help people who don't have the technical skills to protect themselves.

Free software isn't sufficient for building a trustworthy computing environment, one that not merely protects the user but respects the user. But it is necessary for that, and that's why I continue to evangelise on its behalf at every opportunity.


Free software has a problem. It's natural to write software to satisfy our own needs, but in doing so we write software that doesn't provide as much benefit to people who have different needs. We need to listen to others, improve our knowledge of their requirements and ensure that they are in a position to benefit from the freedoms we espouse. And that means building diverse communities, communities that are inclusive regardless of people's race, gender, sexuality or economic background. Free software that ends up designed primarily to meet the needs of well-off white men is a failure. We do not improve the world by ignoring the majority of people in it. To do that, we need to listen to others. And to do that, we need to ensure that our community is accessible to everybody.

That's not the case right now. We are a community that is disproportionately male, disproportionately white, disproportionately rich. This is made strikingly obvious by looking at the composition of the FSF board, a body made up entirely of white men. In joining the board, I have perpetuated this. I do not bring new experiences. I do not bring an understanding of an entirely different set of problems. I do not serve as an inspiration to groups currently under-represented in our communities. I am, in short, a hypocrite.

So why did I do it? Why have I joined an organisation whose founder I publicly criticised for making sexist jokes in a conference presentation? I'm afraid that my answer may not seem convincing, but in the end it boils down to feeling that I can make more of a difference from within than from outside. I am now in a position to ensure that the board never forgets to consider diversity when making decisions. I am in a position to advocate for programs that build us stronger, more representative communities. I am in a position to take responsibility for our failings and try to do better in future.

People can justifiably conclude that I'm making excuses, and I can make no argument against that other than to be asked to be judged by my actions. I hope to be able to look back at my time with the FSF and believe that I helped make a positive difference. But maybe this is hubris. Maybe I am just perpetuating the status quo. If so, I absolutely deserve criticism for my choices. We'll find out in a few years.

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Syndicated 2014-10-30 00:45:32 from Matthew Garrett

Linux Container Security

First, read these slides. Done? Good.

Hypervisors present a smaller attack surface than containers. This is somewhat mitigated in containers by using seccomp, selinux and restricting capabilities in order to reduce the number of kernel entry points that untrusted code can touch, but even so there is simply a greater quantity of privileged code available to untrusted apps in a container environment when compared to a hypervisor environment[1].

Does this mean containers provide reduced security? That's an arguable point. In the event of a new kernel vulnerability, container-based deployments merely need to upgrade the kernel on the host and restart all the containers. Full VMs need to upgrade the kernel in each individual image, which takes longer and may be delayed due to the additional disruption. In the event of a flaw in some remotely accessible code running in your image, an attacker's ability to cause further damage may be restricted by the existing seccomp and capabilities configuration in a container. They may be able to escalate to a more privileged user in a full VM.

I'm not really compelled by either of these arguments. Both argue that the security of your container is improved, but in almost all cases exploiting these vulnerabilities would require that an attacker already be able to run arbitrary code in your container. Many container deployments are task-specific rather than running a full system, and in that case your attacker is already able to compromise pretty much everything within the container. The argument's stronger in the Virtual Private Server case, but there you're trading that off against losing some other security features - sure, you're deploying seccomp, but you can't use selinux inside your container, because the policy isn't per-namespace[2].

So that seems like kind of a wash - there's maybe marginal increases in practical security for certain kinds of deployment, and perhaps marginal decreases for others. We end up coming back to the attack surface, and it seems inevitable that that's always going to be larger in container environments. The question is, does it matter? If the larger attack surface still only results in one more vulnerability per thousand years, you probably don't care. The aim isn't to get containers to the same level of security as hypervisors, it's to get them close enough that the difference doesn't matter.

I don't think we're there yet. Searching the kernel for bugs triggered by Trinity shows plenty of cases where the kernel screws up from unprivileged input[3]. A sufficiently strong seccomp policy plus tight restrictions on the ability of a container to touch /proc, /sys and /dev helps a lot here, but it's not full coverage. The presentation I linked to at the top of this post suggests using the grsec patches - these will tend to mitigate several (but not all) kernel vulnerabilities, but there's tradeoffs in (a) ease of management (having to build your own kernels) and (b) performance (several of the grsec options reduce performance).

But this isn't intended as a complaint. Or, rather, it is, just not about security. I suspect containers can be made sufficiently secure that the attack surface size doesn't matter. But who's going to do that work? As mentioned, modern container deployment tools make use of a number of kernel security features. But there's been something of a dearth of contributions from the companies who sell container-based services. Meaningful work here would include things like:

  • Strong auditing and aggressive fuzzing of containers under realistic configurations
  • Support for meaningful nesting of Linux Security Modules in namespaces
  • Introspection of container state and (more difficult) the host OS itself in order to identify compromises

These aren't easy jobs, but they're important, and I'm hoping that the lack of obvious development in areas like this is merely a symptom of the youth of the technology rather than a lack of meaningful desire to make things better. But until things improve, it's going to be far too easy to write containers off as a "convenient, cheap, secure: choose two" tradeoff. That's not a winning strategy.

[1] Companies using hypervisors! Audit your qemu setup to ensure that you're not providing more emulated hardware than necessary to your guests. If you're using KVM, ensure that you're using sVirt (either selinux or apparmor backed) in order to restrict qemu's privileges.
[2] There's apparently some support for loading per-namespace Apparmor policies, but that means that the process is no longer confined by the sVirt policy
[3] To be fair, last time I ran Trinity under Docker under a VM, it ended up killing my host. Glass houses, etc.

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Syndicated 2014-10-23 07:47:36 from Matthew Garrett

Actions have consequences (or: why I'm not fixing Intel's bugs any more)

A lot of the kernel work I've ended up doing has involved dealing with bugs on Intel-based systems - figuring out interactions between their hardware and firmware, reverse engineering features that they refuse to document, improving their power management support, handling platform integration stuff for their GPUs and so on. Some of this I've been paid for, but a bunch has been unpaid work in my spare time[1].

Recently, as part of the anti-women #GamerGate campaign[2], a set of awful humans convinced Intel to terminate an advertising campaign because the site hosting the campaign had dared to suggest that the sexism present throughout the gaming industry might be a problem. Despite being awful humans, it is absolutely their right to request that a company choose to spend its money in a different way. And despite it being a dreadful decision, Intel is obviously entitled to spend their money as they wish. But I'm also free to spend my unpaid spare time as I wish, and I no longer wish to spend it doing unpaid work to enable an abhorrently-behaving company to sell more hardware. I won't be working on any Intel-specific bugs. I won't be reverse engineering any Intel-based features[3]. If the backlight on your laptop with an Intel GPU doesn't work, the number of fucks I'll be giving will fail to register on even the most sensitive measuring device.

On the plus side, this is probably going to significantly reduce my gin consumption.

[1] In the spirit of full disclosure: in some cases this has resulted in me being sent laptops in order to figure stuff out, and I was not always asked to return those laptops. My current laptop was purchased by me.

[2] I appreciate that there are some people involved in this campaign who earnestly believe that they are working to improve the state of professional ethics in games media. That is a worthy goal! But you're allying yourself to a cause that disproportionately attacks women while ignoring almost every other conflict of interest in the industry. If this is what you care about, find a new way to do it - and perhaps deal with the rather more obvious cases involving giant corporations, rather than obsessing over indie developers.

For avoidance of doubt, any comments arguing this point will be replaced with the phrase "Fart fart fart".

[3] Except for the purposes of finding entertaining security bugs

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Syndicated 2014-10-02 16:40:29 from Matthew Garrett

My free software will respect users or it will be bullshit

I had dinner with a friend this evening and ended up discussing the FSF's four freedoms. The fundamental premise of the discussion was that the freedoms guaranteed by free software are largely academic unless you fall into one of two categories - someone who is sufficiently skilled in the arts of software development to examine and modify software to meet their own needs, or someone who is sufficiently privileged[1] to be able to encourage developers to modify the software to meet their needs.

The problem is that most people don't fall into either of these categories, and so the benefits of free software are often largely theoretical to them. Concentrating on philosophical freedoms without considering whether these freedoms provide meaningful benefits to most users risks these freedoms being perceived as abstract ideals, divorced from the real world - nice to have, but fundamentally not important. How can we tie these freedoms to issues that affect users on a daily basis?

In the past the answer would probably have been along the lines of "Free software inherently respects users", but reality has pretty clearly disproven that. Unity is free software that is fundamentally designed to tie the user into services that provide financial benefit to Canonical, with user privacy as a secondary concern. Despite Android largely being free software, many users are left with phones that no longer receive security updates[2]. Textsecure is free software but the author requests that builds not be uploaded to third party app stores because there's no meaningful way for users to verify that the code has not been modified - and there's a direct incentive for hostile actors to modify the software in order to circumvent the security of messages sent via it.

We're left in an awkward situation. Free software is fundamental to providing user privacy. The ability for third parties to continue providing security updates is vital for ensuring user safety. But in the real world, we are failing to make this argument - the freedoms we provide are largely theoretical for most users. The nominal security and privacy benefits we provide frequently don't make it to the real world. If users do wish to take advantage of the four freedoms, they frequently do so at a potential cost of security and privacy. Our focus on the four freedoms may be coming at a cost to the pragmatic freedoms that our users desire - the freedom to be free of surveillance (be that government or corporate), the freedom to receive security updates without having to purchase new hardware on a regular basis, the freedom to choose to run free software without having to give up basic safety features.

That's why projects like the GNOME safety and privacy team are so important. This is an example of tying the four freedoms to real-world user benefits, demonstrating that free software can be written and managed in such a way that it actually makes life better for the average user. Designing code so that users are fundamentally in control of any privacy tradeoffs they make is critical to empowering users to make informed decisions. Committing to meaningful audits of all network transmissions to ensure they don't leak personal data is vital in demonstrating that developers fundamentally respect the rights of those users. Working on designing security measures that make it difficult for a user to be tricked into handing over access to private data is going to be a necessary precaution against hostile actors, and getting it wrong is going to ruin lives.

The four freedoms are only meaningful if they result in real-world benefits to the entire population, not a privileged minority. If your approach to releasing free software is merely to ensure that it has an approved license and throw it over the wall, you're doing it wrong. We need to design software from the ground up in such a way that those freedoms provide immediate and real benefits to our users. Anything else is a failure.

(title courtesy of My Feminism will be Intersectional or it will be Bullshit by Flavia Dzodan. While I'm less angry, I'm solidly convinced that free software that does nothing to respect or empower users is an absolute waste of time)

[1] Either in the sense of having enough money that you can simply pay, having enough background in the field that you can file meaningful bug reports or having enough followers on Twitter that simply complaining about something results in people fixing it for you

[2] The free software nature of Android often makes it possible for users to receive security updates from a third party, but this is not always the case. Free software makes this kind of support more likely, but it is in no way guaranteed.

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Syndicated 2014-09-24 06:59:09 from Matthew Garrett

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