Foreign nations have been left reeling by news that the NSA has been happily monitoring the private communications of at least 35 world leaders, on top of its all-encompassing PRISM program that was leaked earlier this year. Ed Snowden’s leaks paint a miserable picture of the dystopian position we’re in now, with the US government doing whatever it takes to dismantle our freedom and privacy online.
Even worse, various sources suggest that US-based tech firms are willfully collaborating with US spy agencies to give them what they want, while said companies are simultaneously unable to inform users they’re being spied upon thanks to spurious national security letters that prevent them from doing so.
For the rest of the world, which has long been dependent on US-made software and technology, these revelations mean that its now standing at a crossroads. The US has given the world all manner of wonderful technologies that have transformed our lives for the better, but is the loss of our digital privacy a price worth paying for it?
Many would argue that isn’t, but escaping from this reliance on US technology is no easy feat. Numerous countries have outlined ambitions to develop their own ‘Silicon Valley’s', but to none have ever been successful. Until now, the US is the world’s only superpower when it comes to computing technology.
The Secret To Silicon Valley’s Success
Numerous reasons have been put forward as to why other countries have been unable to replicate Silicon Valley’s success, but the most obvious one is often overlooked. For all intents and purposes, Silicon Valley was largely brought to life on the back of funds that came, directly or indirectly, from the US Military, the wealthiest ‘agency’ of any government the world has ever known.
Steve Blank details these early days of the US tech industry in his talk “The Secret History of Silicon Valley“, revealing how military men like William Shockley and Fred Terman helped lay the foundations for what the valley has become today. Shockley founded Shockley Semi-Conductor, a firm that later gave rise to Intel, Fairchild and others, while Terman helped Stanford University to become a favorite breeding ground for agencies like the NSA. It’s no secret either that a score of companies grew out of US government funding – Oracle, for example, took its name from the CIA project of the same name that led to its creation, and the company was dependent on government contracts during its early days.
Whilst some nations, such as France, are now attempting to pursue the US model and develop their own Silicon Valley’s with strategic state investments, the reality for most countries is that developing this kind of industry is an impossible goal. So what can they do to escape their reliance on US-made technology?
An Open Path To Freedom
In fact, the answer to this problem already exists, and it’s has been widely deployed all over the world. The use of open source software has risen dramatically over the last decade. Web browsers like Google Chrome and Firefox, Apple’s OS X and Google’s Android are all built on, or adapted from open source software, the various flavors of the Linux operating system now have millions of devotees, and even on the International Space Station, much of its software is open source.
As far as foreign governments are concerned, they owe it to their citizens to adopt free software, as Richard Stallman, founder of the Open Source/Free Software Movement (OSS), argued in this 2011 article:
“The state needs to insist on free software in its own computing for the sake of its computational sovereignty (the state’s control over its own computing). All users deserve control over their computing, but the state has a responsibility to the people to maintain control over the computing it does on their behalf. Most government activities now depend on computing, and its control over those activities depends on its control over that computing. Losing this control in an agency whose mission is critical undermines national security.”
That’s not to say that open source software is any more secure than the alternatives sold by Microsoft, Apple or Google, because it isn’t. But if foreign nations really want to match Silicon Valley, open source software represents their best hope of doing so.
Few countries were more angered to learn about PRISM than Brazil, particularly when later leaks confirmed that the NSA had been snooping on government leader’s emails. Shortly after, Brazil announced plans to create a ‘secure email system’ to help it move away from its dependence on US technology, plans that were immediately rubbished by observers. After all, is Brazil really going to create a rival to Google and Gmail? Can it really develop an operating system to match Microsoft’s Windows?
Of course there’s no way it can, but by adopting a Linux distribution for government use, it can slowly but surely assert itself. It would take several years no doubt, but by making relatively modest investments to support Linux projects, Brazil could ensure that these projects remain active long enough to build competencies and skills among its own population, developing homegrown talent that knows how to build robust and useful technology that can be quickly extended to consumers. The work they perform could then be privately forked or fed back to the original projects to contribute to the greater good, allowing other countries to benefit from its creativity.
Adopting and leveraging open source software won’t be easy, but with its popularity and reliability at an all-time high, countries have never had a better opportunity – or more motivation – to start doing so than right now. And only when they do, will nations like Brazil be able to dream of plotting a way out of their over-reliance on technology made in the USA.