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Don't Say Stallman Didn't Warn You!

Stallman, FOSS and the Adobe Nightmare

 

Recently, Richard Stallman published an article in Wired about Free and Open Source Software and its alternative, "Proprietary Software". As he has for 30 years now, he vigorously called for the use and defense of FOSS and warned about the nefarious nature of Proprietary.

As if the worthy Stallman needed an illustration to dramatize his point, the Adobe Corporation last week announced that hackers had stolen from its servers the password and credit card information, of almost three million of its users as well as a huge amount of code from some of its programs -- probably ColdFusion and Adobe Acrobat. That theft is potentially the most serious breach of user information in recent history and, because of the popularity of Acrobat, could prove devastating to computer users world-wide. Such theft is, in the end, only possible with Proprietary Software.

 Richard Stallman and Acrobat's logoRight and wrong: Richard Stallman and Acrobat's logo
 

Since the spectacular theft is being reported (or under-reported) in ways that miss some important issues, analysis is called for, starting with the pertinent definitions.

Proprietary Software is written and distributed by developers (usually companies) who frequently sell it and never release or reveal its code (the programming that makes it work). It's their private work product often protected by copyright laws, special "release keys" that prevent people who don't have the key from using it, and other highly restrictive measures. Most users rely on it for their daily computing.

FOSS, on the other hand, is free and completely open. It can't be sold. Its source code can be viewed and even changed by anyone who knows how and it can't be "hidden and bundled" into commercial or proprietary programs. It's the opposite of proprietary software. You may not use much FOSS on your computer except maybe your web browser and email program) but FOSS programs run the Internet and so all of us are in contact with it and depend on it every day.

The Adobe revelations about user data stolen from its records of customers are dramatic. Having credit card information for so many people (even if it's encrypted as Adobe's is) could result in a whole lot of grief for credit-card holders and multi-million dollar losses for banks and companies. But the more potentially damaging part of the announcement is that code theft because, with that information in hand, good hackers can fashion ways to get into just about every computer using the Acrobat program and steal their data, set up programs that transmit personal information and insert viruses that can wreck stored information.

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