[linux-elitists] wanted: open source terrorist watchlist software?

Ben Finney bignose+hates-spam@benfinney.id.au
Wed Oct 15 21:35:27 PDT 2008

"D. Joe Anderson" <deejoe@etrumeus.com> writes:

> I have to say I'm a bit conflicted in my opinion about this. On the
> one hand, I don't think police departments have any business keeping
> dossiers on folks lawfully going about their civic-minded business.

Indeed. As you no doubt agree, though, they've been ordered to do it,
so they'll do it with or without free software.

> On the other hand, it would suck a whole lot less if watchlist
> software could be easily modified to include a category something
> like "hippies we find mostly harmless, but that we like to keep an
> eye on in case someone truly dangerous decides to join them or one
> of them goes around the bend". After all, why should the cops miss
> out on all the social software fun?
> ("open source" fits--we can't really call *this* "free" can we?)

Surely we can: the *recipient* of the work is what matters for
software freedom.

It's free software only if the recipient of such a work can use it for
*any* purpose, even one independent of, or contrary to, the purpose
for which it was designed. If the designed purpose of the work is bad,
surely it's a good thing to be able to use it for other purposes.

It's free software only if the recipient of such a work can examine
what it does. For surveillance software, it's surely better that
someone outside the vendor can examine and learn about it.

It's free software only if the recipient of such a work can alter and
improve it. That's exactly what you're saying above, and I agree that
the particular improvement you suggest improves the freedom not only
of the recipient but also those who are the subjects of this software.
Yes, “improvement” depends on one's position, but surely that's part
of the point.

It's free software only if the recipient of such a work can
redistribute it and grant all the same freedoms to others in that
redistributed work. That, in turn, allows others *outside* the
department to gain all these benefits; crucially, the benefit of
examining what it does and improving it for other purposes.

I think that's more than adequate to describe it as free software,
without irony. That such software can be *used* for purposes including
the subjugation of freedom makes it no less deserving of the
description “free software” than, e.g., a packet sniffer or

More importantly, I think it's important that such software be free
*because* it's such a bad purpose: at least then there is a
significantly higher possibility of improving the situation than if
the software were non-free.

 \              “Only the educated are free.” —Epictetus, _Discourses_ |
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_o__)                                                                  |
Ben Finney

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