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 or bigger.
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.