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Ubuntu Spyware: What to Do?

by Richard Stallman

One of the major advantages of free software is that the community protects users from malicious software. Now Ubuntu GNU/Linux has become a counterexample. What should we do?

Proprietary software is associated with malicious treatment of the user: surveillance code, digital handcuffs (DRM or Digital Restrictions Management) to restrict users, and back doors that can do nasty things under remote control. Programs that do any of these things are malware and should be treated as such. Widely used examples include Windows, the iThings, and the Amazon “Kindle” product for virtual book burning, which do all three; Macintosh and the Playstation III which impose DRM; most portable phones, which do spying and have back doors; Adobe Flash Player, which does spying and enforces DRM; and plenty of apps for iThings and Android, which are guilty of one or more of these nasty practices.

Free software gives users a chance to protect themselves from malicious software behaviors. Even better, usually the community protects everyone, and most users don't have to move a muscle. Here's how.

Once in a while, users who know programming find that a free program has malicious code. Generally the next thing they do is release a corrected version of the program; with the four freedoms that define free software (see http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html), they are free to do this. This is called a “fork” of the program. Soon the community switches to the corrected fork, and the malicious version is rejected. The prospect of ignominious rejection is not very tempting; thus, most of the time, even those who are not stopped by their consciences and social pressure refrain from putting malfeatures in free software.

But not always. Ubuntu, a widely used and influential GNU/Linux distribution, has installed surveillance code. When the user searches her own local files for a string using the Ubuntu desktop, Ubuntu sends that string to one of Canonical's servers. (Canonical is the company that develops Ubuntu.)

This is just like the first surveillance practice I learned about in Windows. My late friend Fravia told me that when he searched for a string in the files of his Windows system, it sent a packet to some server, which was detected by his firewall. Given that first example I paid attention and learned about the propensity of “reputable” proprietary software to be malware. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Ubuntu sends the same information.

Ubuntu uses the information about searches to show the user ads to buy various things from Amazon. Amazon commits many wrongs; by promoting Amazon, Canonical contributes to them. However, the ads are not the core of the problem. The main issue is the spying. Canonical says it does not tell Amazon who searched for what. However, it is just as bad for Canonical to collect your personal information as it would have been for Amazon to collect it. Ubuntu surveillance is not anonymous.

People will certainly make a modified version of Ubuntu without this surveillance. In fact, several GNU/Linux distros are modified versions of Ubuntu. When those update to the latest Ubuntu as a base, I expect they will remove this. Canonical surely expects that too.

Most free software developers would abandon such a plan given the prospect of a mass switch to someone else's corrected version. But Canonical has not abandoned the Ubuntu spyware. Perhaps Canonical figures that the name “Ubuntu” has so much momentum and influence that it can avoid the usual consequences and get away with surveillance.

Canonical says this feature searches the Internet in other ways. Depending on the details, that might or might not make the problem bigger, but not smaller.

Ubuntu allows users to switch the surveillance off. Clearly Canonical thinks that many Ubuntu users will leave this setting in the default state (on). And many may do so, because it doesn't occur to them to try to do anything about it. Thus, the existence of that switch does not make the surveillance feature ok.

Even if it were disabled by default, the feature would still be dangerous: “opt in, once and for all” for a risky practice, where the risk varies depending on details, invites carelessness. To protect users' privacy, systems should make prudence easy: when a local search program has a network search feature, it should be up to the user to choose network search explicitly each time. This is easy: all it takes is to have separate buttons for network searches and local searches, as earlier versions of Ubuntu did. A network search feature should also inform the user clearly and concretely about who will get what personal information of hers, if and when she uses the feature.

If a sufficient part of our community's opinion leaders view this issue in personal terms only, if they switch the surveillance off for themselves and continue to promote Ubuntu, Canonical might get away with it. That would be a great loss to the free software community.

We who present free software as a defense against malware do not say it is a perfect defense. No perfect defense is known. We don't say the community will deter malware without fail. Thus, strictly speaking, the Ubuntu spyware example doesn't mean we have to eat our words.

But there's more at stake here than whether some of us have to eat some words. What's at stake is whether our community can effectively use the argument based on proprietary spyware. If we can only say, “free software won't spy on you, unless it's Ubuntu,” that's much less powerful than saying, “free software won't spy on you.”

It behooves us to give Canonical whatever rebuff is needed to make it stop this. Any excuse Canonical offers is inadequate; even if it used all the money it gets from Amazon to develop free software, that can hardly overcome what free software will lose if it ceases to offer an effective way to avoid abuse of the users.

If you ever recommend or redistribute GNU/Linux, please remove Ubuntu from the distros you recommend or redistribute. If its practice of installing and recommending nonfree software didn't convince you to stop, let this convince you. In your install fests, in your Software Freedom Day events, in your FLISOL events, don't install or recommend Ubuntu. Instead, tell people that Ubuntu is shunned for spying.

While you're at it, you can also tell them that Ubuntu contains nonfree programs and suggests other nonfree programs. (See http://www.gnu.org/distros/common-distros.html.) That will counteract the other form of negative influence that Ubuntu exerts in the free software community: legitimizing nonfree software.

As of March 2014 we have heard talk of a plan to change Ubuntu to remove this surveillance malfeature. I hope Ubuntu does make that change and soon, since that will vindicate free software's reputation. However, reportedly Ubuntu 14.04 in April 2014 still has the problem.

The presence of nonfree software in Ubuntu is a separate ethical issue. For Ubuntu to be ethical, that too must be fixed.

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