Why Edward Snowden loves open source

Government hacker believes proprietary software is fundamentally untrustworthy

snowden collier
Network World

Infamous government hacker Edward Snowden believes open source is a fundamentally better way to use technology compared to proprietary technology that he believes disempowers users.

Snowden was interviewed at the open source cloud computing project OpenStack Summit in Boston via video from a non-descript location and spoke about his personal use of open source technology. In 2013 Snowden, then a government contractor, leaked classified information about government surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency, which brought him worldwide fame.

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Speaking specifically about cloud computing technology, Snowden said clouds from Amazon and Google are fine, but noted that customers using these products are “sinking costs into an infrastructure that is not yours… you’re investing into things you don’t control or shape.” Snowden raised the question: “When you’re running things in Google’s cloud, Amazon’s cloud, how do you know when you’re being spied on?” Whether its happening legally or illegally, Snowden argues these vendors could use customers’ information “at a layer that’s hidden from you.” There have been no credible reports of cloud vendors spying on customers.

Snowden encouraged attendees of the OpenStack Summit to “direct the future of the internet in a more free and fair way.” One way to do that, he says, is to use open source tools to build computing platforms that customers build and host themselves, which gives users more control over how data is handled.

Amazon Web Services explains on the Data Privacy section of its website that customers control their own data. “Customers maintain ownership of their customer content and select which AWS services process, store and host their customer content. We do not access or use customer content for any purpose other than as legally required and for maintaining the AWS services and providing them to our customers and their end users,” the site states. “We never use customer content or derive information from it for marketing or advertising.” Cloud vendors also offer a variety of ways that customers can encrypt data stored in the public cloud, including offering customers the ability to hold their own keys to the encryption.

Snowden is also worried about data privacy when it comes to smartphones and other technologies. “All systems should be designed to obey the user, they should not deceive or lie to the user. They shouldn't hide from the user,” he said. Snowden said he’s working on open source code projects that allow users to verify the status of their phones, for example, to ensure that when WiFi or networking features are disabled that they truly are.

Snowden said he used a variety of open source tools to facilitate his 2013 leaking of thousands of classified government documents, including the Debian open source operating system and the Tor Project, which helps protect users anonymity.

Snowden has been charged with espionage and theft of government property by U.S. authorities. He’s currently in asylum in Russia.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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