Stallman attacks Oyster's 'unethical' use of Linux

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'
Written by Peter Judge, Contributor

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 ZDNet.co.uk 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.

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