Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

How Signal does security right.

Dec 21, 2016 GMT

A couple of weeks ago, I was writing about Echo Whisper Systems' Signal, which encrypts voice and text messages for Android and iOS phones. Signal is an essential privacy tool, and has become a standard part of my installations. However, as I started using it, I quickly realized that Signal not only offers some useful functions, but is also a rare example of security added so that average users will actually use it.In these days of anxiety, new security and privacy apps are popping up every few days. Most of them, however, do little to integrate into the desktop. All too typically, especially with distributions, they install a bunch of utilities, then leave users to figure them out for...
Taking a stand for ethical tech

Dec 15, 2016 GMT

Several weeks ago, I discussed taking a stand against unethical parts of your work. Ever since the American elections, this topic has been a concern for many, so I am not surprised to see a few publicly declaring themselves. I only wish that corporate leaders would do the same.I am talking about neveragain.tech, a statement signed by over 1400 tech workers. The signers include American employees of organizations ranging from Microsoft and the Mozilla Corporation to the GNU Project and the Kubuntu Council including such free software figures as Matthew Garrett, Matt Lee, and Valorie Zimmerman. Although the statement does not specifically mention Donald Trump, it is obviously a response to...
The obstacles to Linux security

Dec 07, 2016 GMT

Improving security and privacy is the most important issue in modern computing. Yet even Linux, whose architecture gives its a built-in advantage, is moving slowly on these issues. The prevailing attitudes and the innate difficulties of bringing security to the desktop mean that the progress is slow.To start with, despite the media attention of the last few years, many Linux users -- even many developers -- fail to see the urgency. They fail to distinguish the difference between the fact that Linux has the tools for security and privacy with how it is actually configured. In some circles, even mentioning that Linux might not be configured securely raises accusations of FUD (Fear,...
Who cares about market share?

Nov 30, 2016 GMT

On Google+, my colleague Swapnil Bhartiya has been reviving old claims. Free software applications, he proposes (perhaps playing devil's advocate) do not meet professional standards, and the Linux desktop will never be commercial grade. After seventeen years of using primarily Linux, I find myself unimpressed by either claim.For one thing, when people denigrate free software, what they often mean is that it is different from rival proprietary applications. It functions differently, and features have different names or different positions in the menu. However, instead of taking the time to learn, or to find the appropriate tool, they make a hasty judgment, influenced, perhaps, by the...
Phones are the new average

Nov 26, 2016 GMT

A few weeks ago, I traded in my phone. I prepared the way I usually prepare when buying hardware, looking up the specs, and making a spreadsheet for comparisons, but the task didn't motivate me. When I realized I was avoiding the task, I took my spreadsheet down to the nearest mall kiosk and listened to the clerk's description of several of the most popular phones. But somewhere in the middle of the descriptions, I realized I had stopped listening, and bought one at random.Which phone I bought, I had suddenly realized, was irrelevant. One Android phone, I realized, would have the same apps as any other one, and I had been trying to be conscientious about differences that, on some level, I...
Ethical Boundaries and Free Software in the Reign of Trump

Nov 22, 2016 GMT

How far would you compromise your ethics? In the aftermath of the election, this question is suddenly ruthlessly practical for Americans.It is one thing to make inquiries and plans to emigrate. These are still distant enough possibilities to be a mixture of sensible precaution and indulgent melodrama, like assembling an emergency survival kit. For every person who emigrates, there are likely to be dozens who remain where they are, and for those people, the problem of ethics are certain to arise in the next few years.Would you create or implement a database of illegal immigrants? Of Moslems? What about project management software for building a border wall or scheduling waterboarding?...
Crowdfunding vs. Patronage

Nov 02, 2016 GMT

Originally, free software was the work of volunteers. Many were university students. But as the years passed, the volunteers earned degrees and accumulated marriages and children. At first, they sought the support of sympathetic companies, and were often given a free hand so long as they showed results. However, more recently, free software developers have sought the support of crowdfunding -- a development that leaves me with mixed feelings.I have no trouble with crowdfunding for a specific project. I would be a hypocrite if I did, because I am contemplating my own crowdfunding campaign in 2017, using the success of my book Designing with LibreOffice to fund my next book and allow me to...

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