Stallman attacks Oyster's 'unethical' use of Linux

Stallman attacks Oyster's 'unethical' use of Linux

Summary: Free-software advocate Richard Stallman says open source is being used in the Oyster-card system to 'smother the freedom of the people of London'


Free-software advocate Richard Stallman has spoken out against the association of open-source software with London's "unethical" Oyster-card system.

In an email sent to on Monday, Stallman criticised the use of open-source software, such as Red Hat Linux, JBoss middleware and Apache web-server software, in the online payment system for the Oyster contactless cards used on London's underground rail network.

Online payments cannot be made anonymously, so anyone paying online or linking their Oyster card to a credit card for automatic top-ups is handing their travel information to the government, Stallman argued. He also warned that the RFID chip on the card might be read at other times, allowing information to be gathered besides details of Tube and bus travel.

"The GNU system (often called "Linux") has been developed, since 1984, for the sake of computer users' freedom. Ironically, it is now the basis for a system designed to smother the freedom of the people of London, through online payments to Oyster cards," Stallman stated in the email.

"Each Oyster card has a unique ID, which it transmits when it is used," added Stallman, "So, if you make the mistake of connecting the card with your name, then Big Brother knows exactly when and where you enter the Tube system and where you leave. For the surveillance-mad government of the UK, this is like a dream come true."

While disapproving of the use of Linux in the Oyster system, Stallman said there is not much that could have been done to stop Linux being used in surveillance or military systems, as it is a general tool. "We cannot prevent surveillance or wars of aggression [by] trying to prohibit the use of certain operating systems for these purposes, any more than we could do so by putting restrictions on the use of pens or chairs."

Changing the Linux licence would not prevent online payments systems that record user data, Stallman added, because the government could change the copyright laws or use non-free software.

To escape the surveillance enabled by Oyster cards, Stallman suggested paying fares in cash, or using pay-as-you-go cards and swapping them for time to time: "That way, even if Big Brother finds out which card you have today, he can't use its number to look up all your movements for the past N years."

Finally, Stallman suggested keeping Oyster cards in aluminium foil when they aren't actually being scanned for travel, to prevent them being scanned secretly.

Stallman is president of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and wrote the most widely used open-source licence, GPL, now in version 3. Since starting the GNU project in 1983 and setting up the Free Software Foundation in 1985, Stallman has promoted free software, as distinct from the commercial software produced by the open-source movement. He has also campaigned extensively against software patents and government surveillance.

Linux vendor Red Hat and Deloitte, which rebuilt the online payment system around open source, were contacted for comment but did not reply in time for this article.

Topics: Apps, Software Development

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  • Over reaching a bit here!

    Although I do not generally subscribe to the theory that 'I've got nothing to hide' .........., in this case Richard Stallman seems to be overstating the case. It seems to me that, like mobile phones, such information might assist police in solving a criminal case but, until some massive central co-ordinated database of all my activities is created, I really don't see the harm. By the way some mobile phones also run on Linux!

    Of course, what Richard Stallman is probably railing against is the future integration of all our records into a huge intelligent database whereby the state does know all and controls any freedoms we may imagine we have but which are just that, imaginary.

    Nevertheless, already many of our normal activities are recorded, and in some cases abused (junk mail, cold calls, loyalty cards, etc.) and sold on. A short list of the obvious things recorded might contain our everday activities such as shopping habits, card transactions, banking activities,telephone calls, texts, utilities, travel if paid by card, internet usage, DVLC records, driving licences, passports, council records, insurances, tax, pensions, mortgages, financial status, register of voters, health records, where does it stop!

    Then there are all the security cameras and speeding cameras.

    Many of these records are already co-ordinated (joined up) so, for instance, we can tax our cars on the internet. Similarly we can conduct other business quickly and easily on the internet. On the other hand, much of this information about us can, apparently, be widely disseminated without our knowledge and consent.

    The concern is how, now and in the future, this information about us will be used or misused and the great fear is how, in the future, this will impact on our freedom, choices and rights, as evidenced by the arguments over ID cards, biometric passports, central databases and even Phorm, and the shortly to be initiated central database record from birth.

    None of this would be possible without the incredible advances in technology which seem to have a driving force and life of their own. Surprisingly even Universities are developing new superspy and control systems, which shocked me when I first heard this. There is a certain inevitability to all this.
    The Former Moley
  • Absolutely

    I'm afraid to say, I put my Oyster on auto top-up, partly to get at Transport for London's offer of free iTunes tracks. RMS's comments made me stop and think - have I sold my freedom for a sliver of consumer culture?

    At least the uber-database will have a skewed (and probably flattering) version of my habits - my daughter got the iTunes tokens!

  • There's always the other option ...

    ... don't buy an Oyster card.
    I haven't and won't just for the reasons 'his holiness' has outlined.
    The comparative anonymity is worth the additional expense.
  • Huh!

    I can't quite make out if you're being serious, faceteous or ironic, so I'll respond as if you you're serious.

    I'm retired so I get free travel within the Oyster Zone, I don't mind my journey's being buried in the records. I will be identifiable but why would anybody bother. I save a lot of money.

    My daughter's still at school, she gets a substantial travel benefits, but she is identifiable and, presumably, her journey's are buried in the records too. She has had several unauthorised absences from school. I guess these records know where she went but, for sure, I wouldn't be able to find out from said records. Again, I save a lot of money. No harm done

    As of now, I haven't given away any information of any consequence.

    However, I will not use store cards, loyalty cards or Nectar cards etc. because they would specifically target and analyse my personal shopping habits and use this information.

    I send emails, surf the internet, use the phone, etc.etc., all of which record my activities, the records of which must be retained by law.

    And this response can be found by Google within moments of it being posted - really. If you do not believe me, try it for yourself, any phrase from your own post in inverted commas straight away after you have posted .

    Of course, I do not support the Big Brother scenario, far from it, but that has much more to do with how the data is managed and used. Unfortunately, we are inexorably moving in that direction. Naturally, we couldn't have big brother withou the data collection, but neither could we have all the other nice things we have come to expect.

    The cause to support, therefore, is to have the data used in a way acceptable to the people and to resist the state setting up the science fiction scenarios of all seeing, all knowing, all controlling, and leave us with our freedoms and choices, even sometime to do the wrong thing.

    PS. I don't like all the surveillance and speed cameras, but that's another matter which doesn't fit in anywhere in this reponse.
    The Former Moley