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Tuesday, 04 March 2014 11:44

Linux companies never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity Featured


Linux companies are extremely good at missing an opportunity to market themselves; in the wake of the disclosures of the NSA's blanket surveillance, there have been plenty of chances to publicise the fact that Linux and its open source brethren provide a safe computing environment and that companies dealing in these wares will not be selling products with backdoors.

But then Linux companies are always best at failing to capitalise when opportunity knocks.

In three months, it would be a year since Edward Snowden's disclosures about the NSA's blanket surveillance of Americans – and many world figures too. Since then, despite much jaw about the scandal, the fact remains that the spying continues right on.

Several big technology companies — Microsoft, Google, Apple, Yahoo!, and Facebook — were outed as having co-operated with the NSA. There is no indication that that co-operation has stopped.

The NSA was revealed to be also obtaining data by breaking into commmunications of these five, and other companies. There is no indication that that has stopped either.

Some of the tech companies have made a great show of meeting US President Barack Obama and pointing out, rightly, that these revelations could well hurt their businesses. But to date, nothing has been done to stop the mass scooping up of data. It's business as usual for the NSA.

Not so for the companies.

Fears of losing orders are grounded in fact. Late last year, the British newspaper, The Independent, reported that based on its analysis of financial filings by IBM and Cisco, the two companies had seen business slump by more than $US1.7 billion year on year in the Asia-Pacific region since Snowden's first disclosures in June 2013.

From mid-August to mid-October, IBM's sales in the Asia-Pac region fell by 15% compared to the corresponding period in 2012, the newspaper reported. This was twice the fall compared to the period prior to Snowden. Cisco lost 8.75% of its business in the Asia-Pac region in the quarter after the spying scandal came to light; The Independent pointed out that the figure was 2.84% cent for the three months prior to the exposures.

And Boeing appears to have suffered as well, with Brazil opting to place a US$4.5 billion order for fighter jets with Sweden's Saab last year.

In the midst of this, there was a good chance for Linux companies to capitalise on the happenings and trumpet the fact that they are a sound alternative to proprietary companies – after all Linux, and its many open source compatriots cannot be tainted by the NSA brush. Development is open and any attempt to insert backdoors by the hacks at the NSA would be detected.

It is fair to assume that the NSA would not want to be caught in the act. The agency has suffered enough embarrassment already - though that will not deter it in the least from continuing to collect material on when Americans last had sexual relations.

Nils Brauckmann, the president and managing director of SUSE Linux, an independent business unit of the Attachmate group, based in Nuremberg, put it this way:

"The distribution we put out is very close to vanilla Linux and our contributions go back upstream where they are scrutinised. Open source is the best guarantee against spying."

What Brauckmann was referring to was the code contributions that various companies and individuals make to open source projects; these are scrutinised and then incorporated if they serve the overall needs of the project and the direction it is taking. The amount of testing and scrutiny is much more than in the commercial arena because these projects do not have artificial deadlines imposed by marketing departments.

But when it comes to the NSA, the aura of fear in the US is still very great. There are numerous tales of people, and companies, who/which have been brought to heel or ruined because they have spoken out against the culture of secrecy which has been exploited after the hijackings of September 2001. A few brave souls like Bruce Schneier, one of the world's leading technologists, continue to expose the security theatre which has earned people millions.

It would be heartening to see James Whitehurst, the head of Red Hat Linux, the biggest commercial Linux outfit, and one that has seen billing go above the billion-dollar mark, deliver a speech at some official forum that underlined the fact that his company's product — and that of other commercial Linux companies — provides a guarantee against the insertion of backdoors.

The Linux Foundation could also play a role in publicising the virtues of Linux and other open source software.

Microsoft has confirmed its vulnerability by offering to have data of foreign companies that it delivers services to, stored outside the US so that it is not subject to the NSA's dictates.

The closest anyone has come to mentioning the NSA in public is the small French company Mandriva. Its marketing and open source relations manager Charles H. Schulz told iTWire some months ago: "The French and European origins (I'm including Brazil in this) of Mandriva have put our company in an unique position to offer solutions that help customers maintain or achieve their digital independence, meaning, that they won't be subject to regulations and constraints imposed by specific North American governmental agencies. The recent news around this topic indirectly highlight this unique value of Mandriva, I think."

In this climate, there is much to be gained by driving home the fact that Linux is a safe alternative. But then as usual — remember the secure boot fiasco? — one has to ask: who will bell the cat?

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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