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.comment: My Semi-Annual Security Rant

Orwell Was Right

  • June 6, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

Much noise was made in 1984 about George Orwell's book with that year as its title, and how things were nowhere near as bad as he'd predicted.

I do not know whether it is because Orwell himself had been overly optimistic as to the pace of collective human activity or because people in 1984 realized they had a lot of catching up to do, but it turns out the date specified would have been spot on if he'd postponed his dark predictions 20 years.

The terms, of course, are different, but the effect is the same. Pick up a copy and read it and see if you don't find a parallel today for just about everything there. Winston Smith would find today's world a very familiar place indeed. And it is all big versus little, the authoritarian versus the individual. By "big," I of course mean big government, but I also mean big businesses -- and big movements of many sorts, when they seek some (usually ill-defined and amorphous) societal good at the price of personal freedom. This is often, in as good an example of modern newspeak as can be had and no matter the source, in the name of security. Whose security? Certainly not yours and mine. And in any case we oughtn't forget Benjamin Franklin:�� "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Yet that is precisely what is happening -- we're tending our firewalls while any shred of privacy is disappearing by other means.

This unhappy trend is what led me, and I suspect many others, to Linux. It is different not just for the sake of being different or in some superficial way, but in a very fundamental, very important way. It speaks in a lot of ways to a broad -- and to my mind entirely healthy -- suspicion of big institutions and conventional wisdom. Indeed, the whole idea of Linux speaks more of people who pushed northward not just for discovery but actually to live there than it does of the vast body of 20th-century technological development. (There are exceptions, of course -- the Wright brothers did it on their own; Fleming recognized the significance of penicillium by himself; a guy named Molt Taylor had a vision of an automobile that could fly, and, by himself, built the prototype from scratch and actually flew the thing, and went on to produce a few, most of which are still flying now, 50 years later; and in 1987 Dr. Michael Zasloff, working after hours and on his own, discovered the miraculous magainins, wonderful antibiotic polypeptides found in the skins of frogs. These people were not content with the conventional wisdom, because the conventional wisdom was that all of them would fail.)

So there is a political aspect to Linux, and there ought to be. While not everyone using Linux does so because their world view so demands, enough are that it oughtn't be overlooked. Nor apologized for.

This is tied, too, to what to observers probably seems like an obsession with security. We take the security of our machines to be our responsibility, not trusting someone else's binary code to be safe (when all too often it has proved otherwise). This is not remarkably different from those of us who support and like the fire department, but keep a supply of water and hoses and fire extinguishers on hand just in case, or those of us who obey the law and support the police department, but do not overlook the fact that we're responsible for our own physical security. (Yes, the implements for protecting one's home and family can be and sometimes are abused. And knowledge of computer security can be used to rob people blind. Your point?)

The last piece of George Orwell's totalitarian vision is a recent arrival. But now it's here. Say hello to Big Brother.

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