Richard Stallman: You can get arrested without a reason
The last few months have put data protection back in the spotlight. During a crisis of this kind, do we have to choose between safety and privacy? We talked about this with Richard Stallman, digital privacy activist and the founder of the Free Software Movement.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Richard Stallman, digital privacy activist, the founder and leader of the Free Software Movement. It's such a pleasure to have you on our programme once again. Wow, Richard, times have really changed since the last time me and you spoke and I have so many questions, especially now that we're in the middle of one of the biggest crises our generations have faced in the past hundred years. So the coronavirus epidemic has shown that giant tech companies can use their resources to help out in a crisis situation. And that's undeniable.
Richard Stallman: I haven't seen that. I haven't seen them help us. The main thing that they're doing right now is helping people spread insane lunatic rumours that are starting from the president of the US who is basically the saboteur-in-chief acting just like a lot of rebellious chieftains that told their followers, “my magic will make you invulnerable to bullets”. Well, Trump is telling his followers, “you're invulnerable to coronavirus”, and they expose themselves and someone gets sick and they die. And he says it didn't happen.
SS: No, you got a point there. But can I just give you a few examples of what I meant when I said that they helped? For instance, when people were in lockdowns, and still like a lot of countries are getting second waves right now and people feel more comfortable staying home if they can work on distance, so you have Amazon, for instance, delivering goods, food, utilities, things that you need…
RS: But those are horrible because they track you. You know, if I were concerned only with my physical safety, I might use those services too. But I define safety in a broader way. It includes my health, it also includes my freedom and my privacy. And therefore I never use those disservices that require people to identify themselves and they do. To get food delivered that way you have to identify yourself in order to pay. You can't pay cash and then you have to give your address too. And that's more information than I want a supermarket to have about me. So I go to a supermarket, wearing a mask, of course, and keeping my distance from people and I pay cash, and then I carry my groceries back. In this way, I am not having data about me put in a database; because the only data, the only personal data that isn't about you, that isn't a threat to you is the data that hasn't been collected. It's a distraction to talk about protection of data in the databases because the real way to protect your privacy is to make sure that data isn't collected about what you do, or where you go, or who you talk with or what you say to them.
SS: We're going to be talking all the programme about whether people should be choosing between safety and privacy. But let me just go in detail…
RS: No, no, it's not a choice. Privacy is part of safety. Remember that one of the biggest dangers these days is political safety, safety, for instance, from governments that are repressive or authoritarian and cruel. And the more they know about what people are doing, the more dangerous they are. Collecting data is part of their technique for repression. And then there are the movements, you know, anti-truth movements such as you could find many governments supporting and they benefit from digital systems too. Targeting ads to people is dangerous and it's based on knowing a lot of things about people. Well, Facebook doesn't know very much about me because I've never been a Zucker.
SS: Okay, no, I see your point about Facebook. But I still want to hear your opinion, for instance, about something like Zoom or FaceTime. A lot of people around the globe were able to keep their jobs by communicating and doing meetings and brainstorming and just working with all those applications...
RS: It’s unfortunate that they didn't use free software, you know, there is free software, freedom-respecting software is what that means. I don't mean it's gratis. That's not the issue. That's a side issue. But the point is, Zoom is not a freedom-respecting programme, it does what the company decides, and the users can take it or leave it. But unfortunately, especially since March, many users have been put in a position where the option of leaving it means giving up their jobs. Well, I would, you know, I've never used Zoom, I don't use non-free software, I don't allow it onto my computer. If someone says to me, I'd like to speak with you but it has to be with Zoom, I say that is out of the question, I suggest the following other programme, we could use a freedom-respecting programme that's controlled by the users not by some powerful entity. And if they accept that, then I can talk with them. But those that don't accept that I can't talk with and I decline because I'm protecting my freedom and my freedom is part of my safety. With what the wrecker is turning the United States into, I don't think people here will be very safe.
SS: Okay, here's another question that concerns the bigger picture coming out of the pandemic. So the partnership between tech corporations and the governments has grown even closer as a result of the common effort to keep things functional in abnormal times. So when governments develop an even closer partnership with let's say, Google, right, and will use Google's resources for public services, will you stop using public services as well? Because I mean, they'd be contaminated by data [collection]?
RS: No, although it does cause me concern. You know, there are some reasons why governments need to know some things about people. The government needs to know my income and your income in order to tax us properly. Now, the US government doesn't try to operate fair taxation, it taxes most people too much, and rich people far too little. But even if that were fixed the government would still need to know how much money each one is making and how much money each company is making, if the government were to try to tax these companies properly, it would need to know data. So it's not always wrong, that the government gets data about people but each thing that it gets has to be justified. In fact, governments, especially for their repression agencies are collecting a lot more data about people. Over and over, we've seen the United States government and I presume the Russian government collect data systematically on dissidents, protesters, and so on. And this has been happening for decades. So the most sensitive data about you, or where you go, who you meet, and what you and the other people say to each other - these are the things that must not be spied on, and any systematic attempts to spy on them must be stopped. So consider, for instance, Clearview AI, which has a face-matching service. It has collected photos of hundreds of millions of Americans, I think, and then it will match photos, you take a photo on the street, it will match it and the next second you take another photo because suppose it's a video camera, it's taking photos all the time, and so you can match every photo that shows up. And the government could be doing this. I'm sure some agencies are, agencies that don't hold our freedom in very high esteem. So this should be absolutely illegal. People must be allowed, of course, to take photos from time to time. You know, suppose you watch agents of a state arresting somebody and cracking sticks over his head. Well, you should be able to make a video of that. But to do this systematically, in lots of places all the time, that has to be illegal because it will lead to a society where no one can meet anybody else in private, and we see what that's like. You see it in Xinjiang, where the Uighurs are being repressed in this complete fashion. So fundamental freedoms are at stake when we limit the collection of data by digital systems. And so no, I don't think that those systems are helping people. And a non-free programme, since the users don't control what it does, you've got to assume it's designed to do nasty things. And in so many cases, we have evidence, specific evidence that a non-free programme is designed to do specific nasty things. If you want to see hundreds of cases look at gnu.org/malware.
SS: So Richard, there are calls for trust busting in Washington aimed against the Big Tech, in the most radical scenario, do you think the tech giants should be broken up? I mean, how can this be done and won’t it damage the digital ecosystem we already got in place?
RS: Well, I don't see anything... You know, most of that digital ecosystem is unjust and I'd like to get rid of it and I don't use it. So I don't think it's doing any good. I won't use it because the impositions are unacceptable, the terms of service are often unjust and controlling and I say no to them, I never agree to such a thing without reading it, you know. And often, it requires you to run a non-free programme, and I won't ever run a non free programme on my computer. So there are websites I can't talk to. And we need to do more than just break up those companies. I'm not convinced that, you know-- Breaking up the largest companies would reduce their power. To that extent, it would be a good thing and we need to do that in all fields. In the past 20 years or so we've seen enormous consolidation of businesses in the US. Often there are just two main businesses in a field and those are your choices. And I think we should amp up anti-trust to the point where we've got 20 or 30 substantial businesses in each field. If they're not that many, it's starting to be an oligopoly and that's too much domination by business. If we want companies like Google and Amazon and so on to stop collecting data about what people are doing, just breaking them up is not enough. You know, if we had 100 smaller companies in place of Google, and each one collected data and each one contributed to the misuse of that data by several competing ad tech companies, it would still be unjust and the government could still collect all that data silently at any time with national security letters so we wouldn't be safe either from targeted ads or from government tracking of dissidents. So what we need is to prohibit designing systems so that they identify people and record what people do. In the GNU project, the operating system project I started in 1983, we have developed a programme for anonymous payments called GNU Taler. Now, the payer is anonymous, but the store that you're paying that's identified, so Taler can't be used for tax evasion, that was one of its goals. But you can pay for something and the store you're paying can't tell who you were. So as long as the rest of the system also doesn't identify you (and we need laws and new protocols to make sure it can't), you'll be able to buy something digitally anonymously. And if you buy something else tomorrow, it'll be impossible to tell that you are the one who bought both.
SS: But here's the funny thing. It really seems like it's only now, during the corona times, that people have become seriously aware and concerned about their digital privacy. I mean, it's been there forever, right? You could have thought about it before. And there are people who thought about it, but not en-masse. And I wonder why. I mean, traded our personal data for comfort a long time ago?
RS: I wouldn’t say “we”...
SS: And more importantly, now that our digital presence has increased times-fold because of the pandemic isn't it too late to worry?
RS: What do you mean “we”, white woman?
SS: White woman means we, the people.
RS: I haven’t traded privacy for conveniences. I have been rebuking people for this terribly foolish practice for decades. But I couldn't get people to listen to me. I went around saying, “this is an abomination, you must stop”, and people mostly ignored me. And some people understood my arguments. You know, I'm not asking people that take this on faith, you can check the points and recognise the validity of what I'm saying. But the companies have engineered situations where the inconvenience of saying ‘no’ for one person is so high that most people won't say ‘no’. And it's the fact that others are not saying ‘no’ that keeps almost everybody in line. You have to be willing to go against that pressure as I do. And then you can say ‘no’. So when they claim they're not actually forcing you, well, literally speaking, that's true. You're not being forced to have a Facebook account, you're not being forced to have a Google account, you're not being forced to have a Microsoft account. Although if you want to buy a new Windows machine and login in on it, you're almost forced to have to make a Microsoft account. But you can say ‘no’ to all of these things. But we need to make it easy for people to say ‘no’, that's the reason why I developed the GNU operating system. Because, you know, to say ‘no’ to non-free software in 1983, you had to have no computer. Well, in 1983, most people had no computer. But, of course, computers became more and more common and normal to own and by then we had the GNU plus Linux operating system, which made it not too hard to run a computer and say ‘no’ to all that non-free software. That's the point. Make it easier to say ‘no’, less of an inconvenience to say ‘no’, so more people will say ‘no’. But since 2000 or so mobile computing has developed and it's unjust from the very roots. You can't install any free operating system on an i-monster, or on most Android devices. It's just impossible. The hardware is designed so that you can't. So once you accept those devices - there are a few Android devices that are possible to liberate, I should point out, but then you can't run the non-free apps that people use to do most things with them. So it's going to be hard to reclaim freedom and we're going to have to work at it. But as people recognise from examples like Xinjiang, what repression digital systems lead to, I hope people will start fighting and saying, “We won't tolerate systems in our streets in our homes that can possibly track what we're doing, who we talk with, who we go see. We have to have laws against those systems”.
SS: Here's another question. You know, of course, when I start to think about my personal data being collected, yes, I don't like the fact. And I understand that it can be used to manipulate my behavior and influence my opinions. I know that.
RS: And it can be used to arrest you.
SS: Yes, absolutely. And some thinkers that I spoke to, during these uneasy times told me that they may be ok with their data being collected, as long as they know for what. Do you think transparency could work here? I mean, would you be ok with giving your personal data if you knew exactly how it is going to be used?
RS: Well, how could I know such a thing? I could hear what somebody tells me it's going to be used for. How do I know that it won't, in fact, be used for other things? That's a much harder problem. In many cases, I would accept the collection of certain data for certain purposes. But I would always ask the question, “why should we trust you?” There are not very many governments, I would trust to know things about me and trust them to use that data only for the good purpose that they've stated because I know that so many governments are tracking people and trying to pretend they're not and repressing some people.
SS: You know, this Covid-pandemic is actually only speeding up what we already have. And that is digitalisation of everything. And at many, for instance, gas stations, you can't even fill up a tank without a credit card anymore. It's hard to be in touch with people if you're not on Facebook and, what's worse, if you don't have an email. So here's the question, are we heading into a reality where using digital technology would be sort of mandatory not by law but by spirit of time?
RS: There is a danger of that. Of course, I think it's an exaggeration to call that digitalisation of ‘everything’, but certainly many things and enough to make it dangerous; and I call for laws against that. I don't think it should be lawful for a gas station not to accept cash. I don't think it should be lawful for a food store or a restaurant not to accept cash.
SS: So what you're talking about basically, is the reversal of the trend?
RS: Absolutely. If the trend is dangerous, we must reverse it.
SS: But how can it be done in practice now that everyone sort of jumped on that engine and it's going and we don't really know how to stop it?
RS: You know, it's so easy to look at how hard this task is and give up. But I've succeeded at supposedly impossible tasks before. When I started developing the GNU operating system some of my friends said, “Oh, yes, this is what we need but it's hopeless, it's too late, the job's too big, I give up.” They didn't even try to help because they gave up. Fortunately, some of my other friends and some strangers said, “Yeah, I want to help.” And we got it done, thousands of us. And it is possible, therefore, to reverse dangerous trends. There are a lot of dangerous trends in the world. One of them is greenhouse gas emission. You know, if we don't reverse that trend and pretty fast, then civilisation may collapse under all the fires, droughts, crop failures, floods, diseases, civil wars. You know, globalised manufacturing may not work anymore because a civil war over there, in one place you don't normally think about, prevents the production of foo widgets. And there's no way to make any anymore for two years, and meanwhile during that time, five other things can't be made and suppose no computers can be made, and nobody knows how to live without computers, so it could all crash. But even bigger than that, there's an even bigger trend that we also must defeat and that is plutocracy - the tendency for the rich to control governments such that democracy is a sham. Now, this is the situation in the United States. A study determined that since the late 90s, public opinion no longer correlates with federal government policies. They seem to be determined entirely by two things: what rich people want, and what the special interests in any particular issue want. Well, that's not democracy. And that's why we've been unable to get things like a national medical system, a Green New Deal, and various other things that people almost all want, but the politicians keep opposing. And one aspect of plutocracy is, of course, the influence of money in politics, the ease of destroying a candidate with false rumours, distraction campaigns, they're all tools of plutocracy. You know, some people worry that Russia will manipulate the US election through Facebook and Twitter. Well, I'm sure it's trying to, but I'm even more scared of the rich Americans who are doing even more of that. So, you know, we have these horrible trends. And we have to reverse them somehow. And the paradox is, the only reason it's hard is because each of us thinks, “I'm alone, what could I possibly do?” Or even, “I and my 10 friends, what could we possibly do?” But if you try, sometimes your effort grows and grows. So you must try.
SS: Richard, on that optimistic note, I want to thank you for this wonderful chat that we had, me and you. You gave me a lot to ponder about and I hope that our viewers will also have something to think about and decisions to make after viewing this talk of ours. Thank you so much, and good luck with everything.
RS: Thank you very much.