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TechBytes Episode 79: Richard Stallman Speaks About Back Doors

Posted in TechBytes at 3:01 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Techbytes 2013

Direct download as Ogg (00:09:50, 5.7 MB)

Summary: The second part of this interview series focuses on back doors in software

TODAY we speak about back doors and software freedom tackling this issue. Now that we know that the NSA receives notifications about zero-day flaws in Windows (long in advance, directly from Microsoft), which enables cracking PCs abroad, this is very relevant.

This is the second of several (the first part is here) and the transcript follows.

Dr. Roy S. Schestowitz: I want to try and discuss with you this whole subject of back doors. I think in the past — I know from experience — people were trying to call people like yourself “paranoid” for discussing or even entertaining the possibility that there may be back doors in proprietary software. Well, now we know that they exist. One of the things…

Richard StallmanDr. Richard M. Stallman: We know for a long time about specific back doors in specific proprietary software. It has been documented. For instance, the existence of a universal back door in Microsoft Windows was proved years ago. And the existence of a universal back door in most portable phones was proved years ago. Now, a universal back door means that they can be used to do absolutely anything. It can be used to change the software, so whatever they want to do, they could put in software which does it.

RSS: We can make an educated guess about what they think is intercepted and how, but I think that many discussions lack technical details on exactly how the NSA is doing what it does because Glenn Greenwald is not going to release the documents related to that. But some people were talking about hardware-level — even firewall- of network-level — back doors. We may know, based on the leaks for example of Klein in AT&T, they might be harvesting the data at the chokepoints.

RMS: Well, it’s not a back door. If AT&T agreed to connect its computers to surveillance of the NSA, that doesn’t involve a back door. Those computers belong to AT&T, so if AT&T has full control over them, which it should, then AT&T could also connect to the NSA. You see, these are somewhat different issues. The first issue, which Free software is part of, is that you should have control over your computer. Now, that’s violated with proprietary software if your computer is running, say, Windows, or Mac OS, or if it’s an iThing, or most kinds of Android products, then you don’t control it, some company is controlling it and making it do things that you’ll like. So the first thing is, [incomprehensible] says that the computer should have full control over it.

“I don’t think the US government should use operating systems made in China for the same reason that most governments shouldn’t use operating systems made in the US and in fact we just got proof since Microsoft is now known to be telling the NSA about bugs in Windows before it fixes them.”But that doesn’t mean that when you’re using some company’s service, if a company has full control over the computers that implement that service, which it should, that doesn’t mean the company will treat you right. That’s a separate issue. It’s wrong for [another] company to have control over these computers and if AT&T uses proprietary software, it [that other company] fully has control over AT&T’s computers and that’s wrong. However, making sure AT&T has complete control over its computers doesn’t guarantee that AT&T will treat us right.

RSS: I was thinking about a different scenario where the company that you interact with might itself backdoored in the sense that the firewalls, they might be using older hardware and might be using — maybe — back door by design, so that the NSA, for example, can quietly and silently infiltrate and capture data, for example, [from] firewalls or Intel chips for example.

RMS: It’s possible, and not just necessarily Intel chips because the Pentagon suspects that devices made by Huawei might have some back door of the Chinese government…

RSS: And the latest NDAA is actually explicitly forbidding the use of hardware made in China. That’s from the NDAA 2014. But not many speak about why this is happening, why they modified the rules. Recently, interestingly enough, a guy who was interacting with these companies — I’m not sure if you’ve heard about Shane Todd — the guy who lived in Singapore was assassinated apparently under the — basically, the guise of suicide — and there seems to be a lot of suspicion among those two camps of telecom companies and what they might be doing at the back room.

RMS: Well, it’s perfectly reasonable suspicion to me. I don’t think the US government should use operating systems made in China for the same reason that most governments shouldn’t use operating systems made in the US and in fact we just got proof since Microsoft is now known to be telling the NSA about bugs in Windows before it fixes them.

RSS: I was just going to bring this up exactly, so I was saying that the NSA recently received notifications about the zero-day holes in advance and [incomprehensible] the NSA and the CIA to just crack PCs abroad for espionage purposes.

RMS: Now, [incomprehensible] that this proves my point, which is that you have to be nuts if you were some other country and using Windows on your computers. But, you know, given that Windows has a universal back door in it, Microsoft would hardly need to tell the NSA about any bugs, it can tell the NSA about the mal-feature of the universal back door and that would be enough for the NSA to attack any computer running Windows, which unfortunately is a large fraction of them.

The next part will be published next week.

We hope you will join us for future shows and consider subscribing to the show via the RSS feed. You can also visit our archives for past shows. If you have an Identi.ca account, consider subscribing to TechBytes in order to keep up to date.

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  1. David Gerard said,

    June 28, 2013 at 3:27 am


    Small point of order on titles! RMS has many honorary doctorates, but holders of these don’t conventionally use the title “Doctor” in daily life; he never did get around to a Ph.D. (he was a bit busy with other stuff).

    Dr. Roy Schestowitz Reply:

    Fair point. You stated this before.

  2. David Gerard said,

    June 28, 2013 at 9:33 am


    Did I? I forgot :-) I’ve just never seen RMS claim the title of “Doctor” himself.

    (trivia: in poor countries like East Timor, where higher education is very rare, a bachelor’s degree gets you called “Doctor”. Best not use this elsewhere though ;-)

    Nice article, btw, been spreading it around.

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