Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce NSA runs its spying activities on Red Hat Linux

NSA runs its spying activities on Red Hat Linux

A little over two years ago, the first disclosures about the massive surveillance operation being carried out by the NSA were made in the Guardian, thanks to an intrepid contractor named Edward Snowden.

Now comes the rather disturbing information that the NSA runs its XKEYSCORE program — an application that the Intercept, the website run by journalist Glenn Greenwald, describes as NSA's Google for private communications — for the most part on Red Hat Linux servers.

Given that the authors of this article — based on the most impeccable sources — do not describe the operating system as anything else, it is reasonable to assume that this is indeed the enterprise distribution of Red Hat Linux.

Now, Linux itself is free for use; there are a myriad distributions that can be downloaded and run, using one's own ability, for any kind of work, be it for good or bad. There is no stricture on who can use it. However, even open source programmers do at times put strictures on use of their software; the well-known creator of Nmap banned the SCO Group from using the software when SCO sued IBM over matters relating to Linux.

But with a commercial distribution — like Red Hat or SUSE — things are slightly different.

One pays a goodly sum for a subscription to these distributions and is ensured support, timely updates, and any help needed to debug issues.

So should Red Hat be dealing with an organisation like the NSA and helping it to spy on the world at large?

It is reasonable to expect that a company dealing in open source software would practise at least some degree of openness. After all, open source people always place themselves on a slightly higher level than those involved with proprietary software when it comes to the rigour they bring to their dealings.

But Red Hat cannot apparently find a spokesman to comment on its role in helping the NSA pick up your mobile and other data.

No, all that one can squeeze out of the company via a PR droid is: "Unfortunately, there is no available spokesperson to provide a comment at the moment."

One must point out here that with SUSE things could not be more different. A direct question related to the NSA has always resulted in a direct answer.

The NSA, it must be said, also uses other open source packages: MySQL, SSH and Apache, to cite just three. But there is no question of a massive open source company providing these; they are available for download free and are used by world+dog.

Red Hat earns a tidy sum for every licence. The love of money, it has been said by someone somewhere, is the root of all evil.

Sometimes being a company with a billion-plus dollars in turnover can result in the ranks becoming a little tone-deaf.


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.