We've all seen it in movies and TV shows: a criminal or whistleblower being tracked by the government takes the battery out of his cellphone and throws them both in a river. Presto: You're off the grid.
But is such behavior necessary for those of us who don't gain attention from a large and powerful organisation with sophisticated surveillance technology?
Richard Stallman says yes.
"I don't have a cellphone. I won't carry a cellphone," says Stallman, founder of the free software movement and creator of the GNU operating system. "It's Stalin's dream. Cellphones are tools of Big Brother. I'm not going to carry a tracking device that records where I go all the time, and I'm not going to carry a surveillance device that can be turned on to eavesdrop."
Stallman's comments on mobile phones and the free software movement, reported in Network World Monday, set off a wave of debate online. Readers weighed in with more than 1,000 comments, including 700 or so on Slashdot alone and hundreds more on social news aggregation sites like Reddit, Fark and Ycombinator.
Stallman advocates free software - meaning the user is free to examine the source code, alter it and redistribute it as he wishes. If smartphones used free software, users would have the freedom to prevent governments and other organizations from tracking them, Stallman argues. None of the popular mobile operating systems, including iPhone and Android, meet his criteria.
Let's take a look at some of the online debate spurred by Stallman's theory:
Stallman is right:
"RMS is seen as crying wolf, but many of his weirdest predictions have come true," writes user Compaqt on Slashdot. "We're already there with Amazon's actions regarding remote Kindle book manipulation."
"Any device on the net can be used and is used as a tracking device," an anonymous commenter on Networkworld.com writes. "Big brother is already listening in. The NSA [National Security Agency] filters everything on the Internet right now. If you really don't want to be tracked, then kill your net connection and get another identity."
"Remember the article on government snooping while the phone's turned off? The fact that cell phones can and do track you is blindingly true, but for some reason, people don't even want to hear it," the reader Compaqt said.
"This isn't paranoia," Superkuh weighs in on Reddit. "There are established precedents. The power is there and the legislation is in place to use it without oversight in terms of roving wiretaps and national security letters. The abuses of these tools by the FBI are widely documented by the ACLU. Dismissing it offhand as silly or too inconvenient to think about is not very rational."
Stallman asks the public "to take extreme measures against threats which seem both unlikely and dystopian," but he often turns out to be right, says reader Ekidd on Ycombinator, who writes that Stallman foresaw problems with digital rights management. "I've noticed, over the years, that Stallman's most paranoid fears tend to come partially true. So I no longer automatically discount what Stallman says, because his pessimistic predictions have a better track record than my optimistic ones."
A commenter on the Network World site noted that cellphones aren't the only devices to worry about: cars and home appliances include software and powerful computer chips as well.
Stallman is wrong:
After one reader advised turning a phone's GPS off, Wretcheddawn on Reddit wrote "GPS is READ ONLY. They cannot in no way shape or form, get your location from a GPS satellite. There would need to be an application on your phone to transmit the GPS coordinates to them manually over the cell network. If they already have an application running on your phone, surely they can just enable GPS."
A Network World reader chimes in with "I'm grateful that the software development community at large has managed to maintain an arms-length relationship with Stallman and FSF [the Free Software Foundation]," while another says, "Currently there is no incentive for most governments to track the public or individuals. If the time comes, then it's easier to evade surveillance by having a phone but leaving it at home. If you have a registered tracking ID, this raises awareness and actually simplifies the evasion. An inherent advantage that vague conspiracy theories do not provide."
Stallman is crazy:
"Richard Stallman is kind of a lunatic. He's been tinfoil hat for many years now," Redditor Antiproton says.
Weighing in on Stallman's statement that "I'm not going to carry a surveillance device that can be turned on to eavesdrop," Slashdot commenter Luis_a_espinal says "Legit privacy concerns aside, this sentence reads "silence of the f* lambs!!!"
Stallman has no "shades of gray," says Slashdot commenter DrgnDancer, who objected to Stallman's opinion that proprietary software is "a social problem" and "an evil."
"Fanatics make terrible representatives for a cause, because in a world with billions of people, the chance to get even part of what you want, without some sorts of compromise, is non-existent," the commenter writes.
"Cellphones have been critical tools in every recent freedom movement," writes Reddit commenter LegionSB. "Surveillance is a concern, but the rapid communication power is incredibly valuable. The idea that they are Stalin's ideal is ludicrous. Stalin would most certainly not have enjoyed dealing with a young populace carrying smartphones with cameras and Twitter."
"I respect the concept, but I am pretty sure Stallman is crazy and has been for some years," Fark commenter Tziva writes. "I don't mean like 'wild and revolutionary in his viewpoints,' I mean like crazy. Every time I read an interview with the guy, I cringe. This is actually one of the better ones."
One Reddit commenter accused Stallman of hypocrisy, saying "I spent a couple days with rms... a couple years back" and "he definitely has an (old school) cell phone, and uses it." For the record, Stallman was using a cell phone when I interviewed him, but it was one that he borrowed from a friend.
Sure, cellphones can be used to track me. But who would want to?
My favorite comment came from a Redditor named Frukt: "Let them track me. Must be the most boring job on Earth."
"There is no reason for the FBI to have any interest in me," a reader on Slashdot wrote. In response, a commenter named Hazel Bergeron writes, "You are probably less relevant than RMS. But there are many powerful interests which would have interest in tracking and eavesdropping on him, so his argument is sound."
Free software can't save us:
"The Chinese government runs the Great Firewall using primarily open source technologies," writes Samatman on Ycombinator, but it's not clear which open source technology he's referring to. "Free software on phones? If anyone can sideload whatever they want onto any platform they want, it's the Chinese. How does this help you, when the cellphone towers are tracking your phone's every movement, and when attempts to evade that tracking are sufficient to get you arrested or worse? The nature of the license for the software running on a radio has nothing to do with the ability to triangulate that radio, sadly."
Figs on Ycombinator adds, "Wouldn't you also need 'free hardware' to avoid the risk of your device being used against you? If you're not willing to trust the software on your phone, why would you trust that there isn't a tracking device built directly into the chips on the phone?"
Another Ycombinator reader puts partial trust in open source, however, saying "Without a completely open stack, you cannot really know what airplane mode does."
On Fark, reader Dangl1ng writes, "Sure, you can have a PC running 100% not-just-open-source-but-GPL'd software and it can surf the web, send e-mail, store your images, maybe even print to certain brands of printers or halfway kinda-sorta utilize your NVIDIA GPU. That's great. But it doesn't achieve anything politically. It doesn't change any landscape."
Stallman "talks about how free software in the phone could protect you from eavesdropping (not surveillance)," Streptomycin on Ycombinator says. "He is correct. If everything was encrypted, eavesdropping would be impossible. But they could still track your position."
Stallman is right, but impractical:
"He makes perfectly valid and compelling points but then shoots himself in both feet by using the word 'Stalin,'" Angdis on Ycombinator writes. "Language like that just alienates people. The dude needs a filter."
Terevos2 on Reddit says, "I'm glad that we have Stallman to defend freedoms and whatnot. I'm also glad that he hasn't completely won, because in his world, proprietary software wouldn't exist - thus limiting my freedom. My problem is that he essentially calls proprietary software evil. It's not. It's good. Open source software is good, too. They both have their place."
A Slashdot reader points out that GNU and Hurd, the kernel Stallman never finished building, is not yet on cell phones so there's no practical alternative.
"Trying to get everyone to stop using mobile phones is a little bit far fetched," Billy the Boy on Slashdot writes. "It's also not like you can make the cellphone technology in any other way. Location tracking will always be possible. That's why there are laws that restrict access to such records. AND if you really want to blow up a pizza place, leave your phone home that one time. And the social problem of non-free software? People do not care. They never have, they never will. I doubt Stallman cares about every little detail about things he uses but isn't that interested in. When he is cooking his tv dinner, he just wants a microwave that works."
Finally, Dilbert creator Scott Adams proposed a new city called "Noprivacyville" this week. Adams' thought experiment had nothing to do with Stallman's warning about mobile phones, but he argues that some people would consent to live in a city without any privacy (except in the bedroom and bathroom) in exchange for lower costs and crime. Adams' post was inspired by an auto insurance company that will lower customers' rates by 30% in exchange for putting GPS tracking devices on vehicles.
"Although you would never live in a city without privacy, I think that if one could save 30% on basic living expenses, and live in a relatively crime-free area, plenty of volunteers would come forward," Adams writes.
Follow Jon Brodkin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jbrodkin
Read more about software in Network World's Software section.