FOSDEM: looking for Freedom

This year I was thrilled to be able to contribute to one of Europe's leading free software community gatherings, FOSDEM, in Brussels. The weekend included assisting the telephony devroom team spearheaded by Matt Jordan of Digium and some productive face-to-face discussions about DebConf13. To top it all off, though, was the opportunity to participate in a first-of-it's kind initiative in the main track, panel discussion about Free, Open and Secure Communications.

In an event where Free is the first letter of the acronym, and where Free with a capital F is a major objective, it feels to me imperative to reflect for a moment on what Free really means, or we risk cheapening this serious term by throwing it about willy-nilly. It is not necessary to ask too many people before you come to the conclusion that we are talking about Free as in liberty rather than Free as in "nothing to pay". For some groups, like the FreedomBox crew, Freedom has a wider social purpose than just our own personal technological preferences.

A very effective way to deepen our understanding of a subject is to make a comparison or look for some contrast. Reflecting on Freedom may involve reflecting on the lives of those who have been stripped of it. In his call to action when launching the FreedomBox project in a keynote speech at FOSDEM 2011, Eben Moglen implored us to consider the plight of freedom activists in Libya and Syria, people risking their lives to gain access to basic democratic institutions that the rest of us take for granted (at our own peril).

Regardless of the travesties taking place under high-profile dictatorships, I think it is unbalanced to keep coming back to those cases when there are perfectly good examples (or should I say perfectly evil examples?) of injustice right under our noses.

As technologists, this is particularly relevant for us, particularly when working in the field of real-time communications (RTC). For one thing, the systematic abuse of technology by our own Governments may be much more advanced than anything that Syrian authorities could dream of.

The Open Source abomination

Open Source has taken on a new meaning. In the intelligence world, it refers to the gathering of information by scouring sites like Facebook looking for hints of trouble, or even looking for patterns of uncomformity. A recent study even suggested that people who have chosen not to create a Facebook profile should be viewed with suspicion.

In Australia, this type of `intelligence' gathering has taken on a sinister new dimension. Not only can the spooks hack your PC without a warrant but they also have a free run of data collected by big data. Anyone vaguely familiar with legal concepts understands that such trivial matters as who you have in your friend list on facebook doesn't make a solid foundation for a prosecution: at least in a regular courtroom, people can't be "guilty by association". Yet in Australia, the inconvenience of court cases has been bypassed by allowing the national spy agency, ASIO, to act as judge and jury, making `Adverse Security Assessments' (ASAs) and sending people straight into the bowels of hell, bypassing the normal judge, jury and jailor.

Paradise and the kangaroo court

"Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free"

There is that word again, free - it is in the opening line of our national anthem. Let's find out if it really belongs there.

In 2012, a Sri Lankan woman named Ranjini went to a routine appointment with the immigration department. She was born in Sri Lanka, emigrated to Australia as a refugee to flee the civil war, and subsequently married an Australian. She was finally in control of her destiny, making a meaningful life for herself in a supposedly welcoming community. Entering a Government building with her two children, she was ambushed by 10 thugs from the gestapo, with orders from ASIO to have her whisked away to Villawood, a would-be Guantanamo Bay-style concentration camp in suburban Sydney. This is a tale that has the hallmarks of extraordinary rendition, backed by nothing more than an ASA, with no hard evidence in sight. In the Hollywood movie that dramatises this sinister concept, an Egyptian-American is given a similar fate due to nothing more than receiving a phone call that was made in error. The evidence against Ranjini appears to be no more substantial, otherwise they would almost certainly have presented it before a judge in the 9 months she has spent locked up.

In fact, in that 9 month period Ranjini has been locked up without any evidence against her, a member of the ruling Government has been charged with 154 documented counts of fraud, released on bail, and allowed to continue attending parliament, voting on legislation and spending each night together with his family.

Ranjini and her children are not the only case. There are about 50 people suffering similarly abhorrent deprivations of their freedom right now based on `suspicions' about their electronic communications. Thanks to such trivial factors as who they communicated with and where they were born, these people have no basic rights to a lawyer and no prospect of a trial to contest the "evidence" against them - in other words, Australia gives them the same legal status as an animal caged up in quarantine.

Doctor Haneef, the Government claimed his chat records were suspicious

A similar persecution (but not prosecution, as there was never any evidence to show a court) was brought against an Indian doctor in Queensland. It became infamous due to political interference and the way authorities dressed him up in an almost authentic gitmo orange jumpsuit, chained his feet and made him walk barefoot past the TV cameras into court. Remarkably, no charges were ever made against him. After 7 months in prison, his visa was re-instated by the courts and he remains free to practice medicine in Australia, should he ever have the desire to return. What is most interesting for us in this case is that the Government specifically mentioned that the existence of instant-messaging/chat records between Dr Haneef and a distant second cousin in the UK were supposedly credible evidence to destroy his life and career. Would his fate have been different had he used XMPP and OTR rather than MSN?

Back to Ranjini. Her child, an Australian citizen, has been born in a place so evil that even one of the guards in a similar centre recently committed suicide rather than continue carrying out the Government's dirty work. Is Ranjini's child getting shortchanged on that promise from our national anthem, not quite feeling "young and free"?

It could be any of us

You may be thinking that these are extreme or random cases. They are not. In a case much closer to home, one of my first technology projects involved the Virtual Moreland Community Network, a web publishing and training initiative since subsumed into Vicnet. By co-incidence, Virtual Moreland is where I first came into contact with the Debian Project. Virtual Moreland was very successful, receiving various government grants and providing hundreds of web sites.

On 6 October 1997, one of the major newspapers published a massive list of names of citizens monitored illegally by a secret unit of the state police department operating well outside their legal mandate. Included on the list was one of my fellow committee members. The list was several years old, and the person in question believed that they had picked up his name from their intrusion into the student unions. Will the fact that I have exchanged emails with him now be a red flag on my own name? Isn't that the way it works with big data?

We should be reassured then to know that Australian authorities are now taking monitoring to a new level, with non free smartphone apps that almost all students must install to receive their funding. You don't need to be a full time conspiracy theorist to imagine the Orwellian consequences of this scheme. No doubt as people grow up under this regime, they will be expected to put some new Government app on their phone when they get their first job, and they will be monitored for their whole life.

But shouldn't honest people have nothing to worry about?

Let's assume for a moment that the Government only uses snooping data for dealing with people who break the law:

It appears the law doesn't always discriminate between those who are good and bad, and is more often used against those the Government just doesn't know what to do with.

Where to next

It is clear that even in a country that proclaims Freedom in our national anthem, many people are not Free, and what Freedom is left is constantly at risk.

It is facts like these from the bowels of our cozy western democracies that put a new dimension on some of our experiences from FOSDEM, such as the Free Your Android presentation by FSF Europe, or the in-depth and wide-reaching discussions about creating independent, federated social networks with strong privacy and encryption controls.

It is clear to me that the benefits of adhering to Free technology are well worth pursuing and I look forward to pursuing those opportunities in depth at future events like FOSDEM.