Archive for June 30th, 2020

OTF-funded security/privacy FLOSS

As the readers of this blog almost surely know, I'm the author of NoScript, a web browser security enhancer which can be installed on Firefox and Chrome, and comes built-in with the Tor Browser.

NoScript has received support by the Open Technology Fund (OTF) for specific development efforts: especially, to make it cross-browser, better internationalized and ultimately serving a wider range of users.

OTF's mission is supporting technology to counter surveillance and censorship by repressive regimes and foster Internet Freedom. One critical and strict requirement, for OTF to fund or otherwise help software projects, is them being licensed as Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS), i.e. their code being publicly available for inspection, modification and reuse by anyone. Among the successful projects funded by OTF, you may know or use Signal, Tor, Let's Encrypt, Tails, QubeOS, Wireshark, OONI, GlobaLeaks, and millions of users all around the world, no matter their political views, trust them because they are FLOSS, making vulnerabilities and even intentionally malicious code harder to hide.

Now this virtuous modus operandi is facing an existential threat, started when the whole OTF leadership has been fired and replaced by Michael Pack, the controversial new CEO of th U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), the agency OTF reports to.

Lobbying documents emerged on the eve of former OTF CEO Libby Liu's defenestration, strongly suggesting this purge preludes a push to de-fund FLOSS, and especially "p2p, privacy-first" tools, in favor of large scale, centralized and possibly proprietary "alternatives": two closed source commercial products are explicitly named among the purportedly best recipients of funding.

Beside the weirdness of seeing "privacy-first" used as a pejorative when talking about technologies protecting journalists and human rights defenders from repressive regimes such as Iran or People's Republic of China (even more now, while the so called "Security Law" is enforced against Hong Kong protesters), I find very alarming the lack of recognition for the radical importance of the tools being open source to be trusted by their users, no matter the country or the fight they're in, when their lives are at risk.

Talking of my own experience (but I'm confident most other successful and effective OTF-funded software projects have similar stories to tell): I've been repeatedly approached by law enforcement representatives from different countries (including PRC) - and also by less "formal" groups - with a mix of allegedly noble reasons, interesting financial incentives and veiled threats, to put ad-hoc backdoors in NoScript. I could deny all such requests not because of any exceptional moral fiber of mine, even though being part of the "OTF community", where the techies who build the tools meet the human rights activists who use them on the field, helped me growing awareness of my responsibilities. I could say "no" just because NoScript being FLOSS made it impractical/suicidal: everyone, looking at the differences in the source code, could spot the backdoor, and I would loose any credibility as a security software developer. NoScript would be forked, in the best case scenario, or dead.

The strict FLOSS requirement is only one of the great features in OTF's transparent, fair, competitive and evidence-based award process, but I believe it's the best assurance we can actually trust our digital freedom tools.

I'm aware of (very few) other organizations and funds adopting similar criteria, and likely managing larger budgets too, especially in Europe: so if USA really decides to give up their leadership in the Internet Freedom space, NoScript and other tools such as Tor, Tails or OONI would still have a door to knock at.

But none of these entities, AFAIK, own OTF's "secret sauce": bringing together technologists and users in a unique, diverse and inclusive community of caring humans, where real and touching stories of oppression and danger are shared in a safe space, and help shape effective technology which can save lives.

So please, do your part to save Internet Freedom, save OTF, save trust.

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