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Re: Free licensing of surveillance software

From: Aaron Wolf
Subject: Re: Free licensing of surveillance software
Date: Tue, 14 Jan 2020 20:42:19 -0800

On 2020-01-14 6:38 p.m., address@hidden wrote:
> Aaron Wolf writes:
>> Are you picturing a case of something like telemetry software that is
>> benign and useful enough given transparency and acceptance by anyone who
>> is getting measured
> I am not particularly interested in any of benign software, telemetry
> software, nor surveillance software. I would the users of software
> to have control over all of their software, regardless of how the
> software is categorized.
> * If the software usage is realized through execution of a binary,
>   GPL and AGPL protect the freedom of users.
> * If the software usage is realized through communication with network
>   server software, AGPL protects the freedom of users.

Note that AGPL does not fully protect the freedom of users of server-run
software. It is a fall-back / check and balance against abuse, but when
you use software on a server, you cannot have full freedoms as you are
not running it. See

AGPL provides the capacity to check the code (to know what the software
is doing) and to get the code to run elsewhere. It's certainly something.

> * If the software usage is realized through being surveilled by methods
>   other than binaries or network servers (for example, through
>   computer-assisted interrogations or surveillance cameras), would it be
>   possible to require additionally that the people being surveilled
>   (often called "useds" than users) have the same freedoms? That is,
>   they would be allowed to run their own installations of the
>   surveillance software, to study the source code, to share the
>   software, and modify the software. And this is in addition to the
>   protecting the rights of those conducting the surveillance,
>   likely by the same methods as used in GPL and AGPL.

The problem I was getting at is this: what scenarios could there be
where the authors of software used in such surveillance *choose* to use
this freedom-focused license?

Companies and governments that want to secretly surveil us will not use
such a license for software they make. And why would free-software
focused developers make such surveillance software in the first place?

If the developers of such software don't otherwise care about freedoms,
licensing won't help. We'd need laws to regulate such software.

> Perhaps it will be informative for me to elaborate on my example.
> Suppose that I write a Gtk button widget. It is special because of its
> special feature for changing shape among different animals depending
> on a parameter. Jinny writes a surveillance camera software in Gtk, and
> then Pauly uses the surveillance camera software to spy on Julian.
> * If I license my Gtk button widget under GPL (any version) or AGPL,
>   then Jinny is obliged to license the rest of the camera software under
>   a compatible license and to provide the source code to Pauly. Pauly is
>   not obliged to provide any source code to Julian.
> * Can I license my Gtk button widget in such a way that Pauly would
>   be obliged to provide the source code to Julian?

Gotcha, the goal is to just limit the software anyone can use as part of
surveillance software (that stays secret and anti-user). That makes some

> Here is another example. I put a camera inside my house so that I can
> see who is in the house when my family is not home. Kim robs the
> house, and the camera records him robbing the house. Is there a software
> license that gives Kim the right to obtain the source code to the camera
> software? He could obtain the source code by following the instructions
> that I had posted on the wall next to the camera.
> I believe that my curiousity is fundamentally whether surveillance
> can be defined such that surveillance software would count as a user
> product delivered to both the people conducting surveillance and
> to the people subject to surveillance.

I think a license could exist that would require, e.g., the users of
camera software to offer the software to anyone they ever take a photo
of. It might not be easy to enforce, but some cases could be clear.

But I might be paranoid as a user. Now anyone who steps in front of my
camera could sue me if I neglect to post the notice about source access?
That's much more broad than merely applying at the exact time that I
distribute software. Suddenly I have some license liability every time I
use the software…

> I avail itself of this opportunity to renew to you the assurances
> of my highest consideration.
> Fritz
> Those joining from copyleft-next may find Aaron and my previous messages
> in the libreplanet-discuss archives.

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