Secret code and the damage it does to our society


Transparency against malpractice

Transparency is a nice word, you feel as if by being able to see through something you are less at risk and more in control.

Little wonder then that it crops up a lot nowadays, usually in the wake of 'revelations', whether they be about the dastardly banking practices that brought the world to its knees or MP's expenses which threaten to do the same for Parliament.

What the above had in common is that what was going on would have been deprecated whole heartedly had we, the great unwashed, known about it. In other words this stuff was hidden but would not have been so if the processes that generated it had been transparent.

A future 'great scandal' to emerge will, I believe, be the result of lack of transparency in the software systems that control our society.

Microsoft's Jerry Fishenden's very recent and (I found) chilling presentation concerned their massive Public Sector IT commitment. Simply put, it was about the next generation smart surveillance programme or 'proof of entitlement' initiative.

Now I don't intend to debate just how far we have traveled into the gloom of a repressive state rather, I have a more limited objective and that is to make a very obvious but important point about the kind of software we use.

Transparency and Software

As a result of my new enthusiasm to 'get out more' I found myself listening to a detailed and balanced 'non-advocacy' presentation from a respected OSS Watch staffer.

He explained patiently how open source licencing worked and how it differed from proprietary licences. But what he did say whilst looking for an everyday resonance to make his points accessible to a non-geek audience, and which really sharpened every-one's attention, was that proprietary software was built on secret code whereas open source software had transparent code.

Proprietary software IS composed of secret code. You can't read it, you don't know what it does (other than what you can see it do), you don't know how it does it and you can't change it.

Once no one really minded much or thought about secret code. Indeed when I used MS Windows 98 and MS Office 97 it never crossed my mind. I was, it must be admitted, simply grateful for what it could do.

However things have moved on and secret code is becoming a threat to our civil liberties and to the development of IT in general.

Below is why I think this is the case starting with a practical illustration of how secret code inhibits development and increases costs and following with threat it poses to our liberties.