For my money, Christine
Peterson offered the most important message I heard at OSCON.
Way back when, she invented the term ‘Open Source’ and, if we get behind it,
which we should, the No Secret Software! rallying cry could be as big
It’s simple: when data is gathered and used for the people as part of
civic processes (voting is a good example), processing it using secret
software, especially if it’s a private-sector secret, should be totally
out of bounds.
This is very closely aligned to the struggle for the use of open-source
software where appropriate, but ‘Open Source’ is a term of art and is
associated with ill-groomed inarticulate geeks who have odd opinions about lots of
things. ‘Secret software’ is a term that anyone can understand instantly, and
it sounds creepy and dangerous; because secret software in the public sector
is creepy and dangerous, and simply shouldn’t be allowed.
Ms Peterson gently chided the Open-Source community for having let the
e-voting debacle happen in the first place; it was foreseeable and should have
been headed off. I think she has a point.
Her aim in the OSCON talk (which is
online at blip.tv) was to give
warning of similar battles looming in the realm of security data, which is
already vast and is growing fast. It will be gathered by our
governments and will be put to lots of uses involving lots of
software and storage.
We will get better security and simultaneously less potential for abuse if
we rule out the use of secret software. So, let’s do that.
It’s not enough to be right about an important issue. It’s vital to frame
our opinions and beliefs in language that’s simple and believable and whose
meaning is clear and self-evident.
I think we’re in Ms Peterson’s debt for giving us this important rhetorical
tool. I’m going to start putting it to use whenever these issues come up in
the civic sector. I think if we all get behind this, we’ll strengthen our
position in some debates that really matter, and we’ll be better citizens.