Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Mysterious Boxes & Processes vs. Open-Source

My last post hit on issues with voting systems and my belief that the software for these systems must be open-source. I'll continue the same topic in this post and argue that there appears, to me anyway, an insidious movement towards secrecy in processes that can carry grave consequences for the innocent. I liken what we're seeing as no different than the witchcraft trials in Salem centuries ago where the only evidence presented is a mystery to the lay-person and we are told to trust the source.

First we'll start with this motion in one of the RIAA lawsuits claiming illegal downloads of copyrighted material. The attorneys for the defendant are seeking to remove the "expert" witness for the plaintiff because the methods are mysterious, not founded on sound, peer-reviewed science and maintain a certain proprietary nature. They argue that methods used to accuse a person must be challengeable and testable. This is at the heart of the U.S. justice system, the accused always has a right to face their accuser.

However, in this particular case, the defense is pointing out that the methods used to identify their client as a scofflaw maintain a certain ethereal quality about them - they can't quite be grasped, examined and proven. There's a certain air of proprietary-ness associated with the methods used to identify these dastardly music downloaders.

Imagine for a moment that you stand accused of a crime. You find yourself in court and the evidence against you is the display screen from a computer program. The prosecution/plaintiff claim that the methods used to identify you are sound and can be trusted but the software used is considered a trade-secret and you'll just have to trust them when they say you are the culprit. You have no right to examine the software, you have no right to know how it determined your guilt - in essence you have no idea the true evidence against you. Have you ever read Kafka's "The Trial?" You should, this is where some would have us go.

With evidence, as with voting machines, the process has to be transparent to be trusted. If I'm ever accused of a crime I want my experts to be able to examine all the evidence, including source code of programs used to implicate me.

Unlike Kafka, I don't fear a conspiracy, I fear incompetence. I think the RIAA lawsuits are full of incompetence. Combine incompetence with bullying and intimidation and you get a lot of innocent people swallowed up in their own Kafkaesque nightmare.

Openness, which means open-source for software, helps to bring us out of this darkness and back into the light. Open-source is all about transparency and I don't fear that.

1 comment:

Nick said...

I did not completely agree with you on voting machines, as they can be verified three different ways, however the point you make here is sound, and in my view unimpeachable. If the accuser is the only person who has the ability to understand the device that is being used to accuse a person, then we do have a witch hunt scenario.
I think about the images of the crucible (a work of fiction) as Abigail Williams is trusted completely as she sees specters that cannot be verified by impartial onlookers.
I hope you continue to follow this story, this is a very important case that will likely go unreported for the most part.