Analysis: The use of open-source software by terrorists and violent extremists

Paul Boddie paul at
Wed Sep 11 13:55:23 UTC 2019

On Wednesday 11. September 2019 11.27.56 Carsten Agger wrote:
> On 9/11/19 9:29 AM, Alexander Sander wrote:
> > 
> > Analysis: The use of open-source software by terrorists and violent
> > extremists -
> Yes, without having read the report, that's a very weird point to make.
> *All* software can obviously be used by anyone - including bad actors.

Indeed. People will use whatever technology they can get, regardless of 
whether it is Free Software or the hardware equivalent. I vaguely remember a 
case of North Korea using games console hardware for military purposes. Nobody 
made the case, implicitly or otherwise, for banning games consoles, although I 
believe that certain consoles were probably subject to various export controls 
at various times.

> As available for every purpose as free software is, it's not -
> unfortunately, but let's not flatter ourselves too much - really *more*
> available or abundant than proprietary software.


> A general investigation into "the use of *software* by terrorists and
> violent extremists" would arguably be much more interesting.

It might be interesting from the perspective of strategists and those wanting 
to understand the operation of such groups, but for many people I think the 
conclusions would be fairly unremarkable and confirm their intuition that bad 
actors use what they have, with limited interest in how things are used unless 
there are some bizarre applications of mundane things. I seem to remember a 
story about home-made "encryption" tools made using Excel that falls into such 
a category.

Of arguably broader societal interest is how the dominant "social media" 
platforms are used by bad actors. Naturally, there has been plenty of 
attention on this amongst the more responsible news organisations, but there 
are also plenty of apologists for these platforms who claim that the good done 
via these platforms outweighs the bad ("they connect people!"), that the bad 
things aren't really significant ("we can't be sure it had an effect!"), that 
indications of responsibility for bad things aren't clear ("lots of people are 
buying advertising!"), and so on.

Never mind that such platforms have been used to coordinate criminal acts 
(substitute "Facebook" for "open-source software" in the subject of this 
message for a suggested search phrase on this topic) and have even sought to 
profit from criminal and otherwise unethical activities by selling targeted 
advertising that would have landed traditional advertising brokers in court. 
It is one thing claiming that bad people *happen* to be using a platform, 
quite another to be selling services to those people or otherwise profiting 
from their activities.

This does intersect with Free Software, unfortunately, because such platforms 
make substantial use of Free Software despite themselves being proprietary 
entities with no scrutiny or control available to their users. The developers 
of the Free Software used by these platforms might not be able to sensibly 
restrict how their code is used - the dilemma as old as the Free Software 
movement itself - but they can refuse to be included in whatever coalition 
those platforms conjure up to defend their own selfish and harmful agendas.

And, as I have noted before, by upholding a broader spectrum of values with 
Free Software being just one component, we should not allow such proprietary 
platforms to drive and to define what we stand for (or should stand for) as 
Free Software developers. Even supposedly robust organisations have been 
compromised by feeding off the supposed popularity of these services ("like 
this article on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram!") and the institutions of 
society are compromised as a result.

We should not abandon the rest of society in following the same selfish path, 
where people focus only on how their own narrow special interest may benefit, 
ignoring the larger impact on everybody else. Only the foolish would boast 
about how criminals and terrorists use their software. But what does that make 
the people who would willingly cooperate with those who routinely facilitate 
such activities?


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