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Ubuntu Spyware

Richard Stallman, creator of the GNU Project and author of several pivotal free software licenses (GPL, etc), yesterday published an article on the Free Software Foundation website exploring the fact that Ubuntu is adding really obnoxious spyware which sends your local file searches to advertisers, et al. For background, I covered this in my GNOME (et al): Rotting In Threes: Ubuntu Spyware article section, and the EFF published Privacy in Ubuntu 12.10: Amazon Ads and Data Leaks.

Stallman writes:

One of the major advantages of free software is that the community protects users from malicious software. Now Ubuntu GNU/Linux has become a counterexample. What should we do?
Most free software developers would abandon such a plan given the prospect of a mass switch to someone else’s corrected version. But Canonical has not abandoned the Ubuntu spyware. Perhaps Canonical figures that the name “Ubuntu” has so much momentum and influence that it can avoid the usual consequences and get away with surveillance.

See his full article for details and how you can impact their decisions.

This is not exactly a new behavioral trend for Canonical, merely the latest growth. Several years ago when I dumped Ubuntu they were starting to modify Firefox in their repos so that the online search box redirected to their servers. Their escalation into sharing local search data is a gross betrayal of their users. I think anyone who supports Linux should seriously question why they’re using Ubuntu at this point. In free software, we don’t vote much with our dollars, but we do vote by using and giving attention to software and distros. Nothing says ‘I do not support this’ like users moving en masse away from their offerings. Addiction to any one distro or software solution allows these corporations to keep moving Linux in anti-user directions.

Kudos to a community leader such as Richard Stallman for taking a firm stance against these practices. Much of the valuable qualities we find today in Linux are there because of his work and the work of similar activists, as well as Linux users who stay aware of and involved in these issues. Also see Richard’s personal activist site where he gives excellent reasons for Don’t do business with Amazon, Don’t use Skype, and Don’t do business with Apple, among important others.

What this comes down to: Do you want Linux to survive and grow as a viable alternative to closed, user-limiting systems?

December 8, 2012 - Posted by | News


  1. I mean, who cares about what Richard Stallman thinks? He seem claims the GPL is “free” despite it being a restrictive license.

    Spyware is (a) malicious (b) installed on computers (c) that collects information about users (d) without their knowledge.

    Ubuntu follows only (b) and a little bit of (c) which is completely opt-outable.

    Comment by eeh | December 8, 2012

    • You strike me as someone who just doesn’t want to give up Ubuntu for whatever reason, so you make excuses for whatever they do – blindly defending ‘your distro’ against all ‘attacks’. Not exactly new. How about we evolve this discussion above ‘my distro rules!’, since one way or another all are affected by these forces. Instead, practice being honest with yourself and others about what’s happening, even if you can’t or won’t change distros yet. Ubuntu isn’t ‘your distro’ anymore – it’s Canonical’s, and they don’t care what you think.

      The GPL is restrictive in some areas to further protect the freedom of GNU Linux and its users (from patents, DRM, etc), not the other way around. You’re spreading fud, which says a lot about your deep conscience and values in this area. Thanks for the flawed, corporate-friendly spyware definition, but any fool can see this is it.

      As for Richard Stallman, his record speaks for itself. What have you done for Linux for the last few DECADES?

      Comment by IgnorantGuru | December 8, 2012

    • Stallman would argue that the lense is definitely (a) malicious. You could argue that sharing personal information is not hurting you directly, but I’m sure you appreciate your privacy and are protective of your identity information and bank account. And in many cases of new users of Ubuntu, they will not be aware (d) of how it works. There aren’t big warning signs, so unless you follow these types of tech blogs, users wouldn’t know.

      Of course it’s possible to use Ubuntu and uninstall the lense, or use a different Desktop than Unity, or use a distribution based off the Ubuntu repositories. All in all, Ubuntu is still providing huge value to the community, you can use what they offer and opt-out of the spyware. But it would be better if that particular lense were an opt-in feature, that some people really might appreciate.

      Comment by PePa (@peterpasschier) | December 9, 2012

  2. Just want to note that “Ubuntu sends your local file searches to advertisers” affects only ubuntu and not kubuntu, lubuntu, etc. Of course I am not talking about the other things like nonfree drivers etc.

    Also the FSF does not endorse these systems; Arch GNU/Linux, Canaima GNU/Linux, CentOS,
    Debian GNU/Linux, Fedora, Gentoo GNU/Linux, Mandriva GNU/Linux, openSUSE GNU/Linux
    Red Hat GNU/Linux, Slackware, SUSE GNU/Linux, Ubuntu GNU/Linux, FreeBSD, NetBSD, and OpenBSD, Haiku, CyanogenMod.


    Comment by Σταύρος Δαλιακόπουλος | December 8, 2012

    • Thanks for the info. I think it’s great they set that high bar for what is really free vs non-free. Until we have more open hardware it may not be practical for all, but they’re defining a standard, not necessarily condemning those who don’t meet it. Although Richard is quite uncompromising. It’s good to have people like that reminding of us where the real line is and how far we’re getting from it.

      Yet here the issue is just corporations bringing a whole different, parasitic ethic to Linux, and many users being unaware or simply not caring. I think that’s a mistake if you like some of the free, flexible and powerful qualities of Linux, and want them to continue. All these little death-by-a-thousand-cuts do add up.

      Comment by IgnorantGuru | December 8, 2012

  3. The privacy-unfriendly trend is not specific to Ubuntu. Booting into a “live” session of most any contemporary distro, if you double-click a music file (curious to find out whether your hardware was correctly detected and whether required codecs are pre-installed)… it’s highly likely that the default “player” app has been pre-configured to connect to the internet, callout to last.fm along with 6-10 other “partner” sites (partner of whom? the app developer? the package maintainer? the distro?) ~~ telegraphing the details of each music track you play. Some apps are even pre-configured to scan your drives (and or sniff gvfs-metadata) and incrementally telegraph to those “partners” a manifest of your collection.

    Comment by YOU_are_the_product | December 8, 2012

  4. I would like to append my article above based on an education I just received. I made the mistake of writing to Richard Stallman about this, and asking for his larger opinion on some of the horrid developments in GNOME, as I see these issues as connected.

    A few emails later, I can only say that Richard Stallman is not what he appears to be. His reaction to the GNOME issues was so bizarre that I did some reading on the FSF, Richard Stallman, and GNOME. It was very enlightening to me (I don’t often follow these politics). It would appear that Richard is a complete GNOME fanboy, and that the FSF is not what it appears to be. It seems Stallman is also in bed with Red Hat.

    Corporate connections and FSF – who’s paying Richard’s salary…

    “Giants like Microsoft and Apple are trying harder than ever to control the software you use.”

    Yet Google, it’s biggest donor, and IBM and Oracle (a true evil in Linux) are ‘the good guys’. I’m somewhat surprised Red Hat isn’t listed there, but I guess that would make it too obvious.

    I asked Richard why the FSF gives its contributors’ money to the GNOME Foundation, when GNOME has been hijacked and closed by a billion dollar corporation with ties to the nuclear energy sector. At first he ignored my question repeatedly, and finally answered simply (and falsely) that anyone is welcome to contribute to GNOME.

    At first it seems strange that Richard, seemingly a great proponent of free software, would be involved in this. But the pieces do fit together. I have seen this before in high profile people who aren’t what they appear to be when you actually speak to them – it seems he’s in someone’s pocket, and always has been since his MIT days. It’s a very effective means of destroying genuine growth and dissent – put your controlled boy in charge of the revolution to drive it into irrelevancy.

    This talks about exactly what I’m refering to:

    The FSF is not evil for advocating [free software]. It is evil for doing nothing but advocating it. It is evil for hyping something good in such an ineffectual manner that people will become sick and disillusioned of it. It is evil for sending the implicit message that its model is completely impractical and impossible. It is evil for saying “Justice would be great, but of course, it could never work.”

    Much more than that out there. Reading some of the criticism of Stallman and the FSF, it’s clear why he is so blind to GNOME’s failures. Hmmm, Red Hat based in Boston, along with the FSF, as well as MIT. Probably a CIA office there too. Must make lunches convenient.

    I’m now convinced the FSF is a fraud – a corporate-run nonprofit, similar to the ones the media giants set up to represent their political causes. But I’m late to that party – others have already come to this conclusion. Stallman tows the line of his corporate masters, and that’s just the surface of it. This seems to be one way that Linux is controlled from within by corporate commitee, not set free.

    Yet another fraud – Linux is simply rotten to the core.

    In my updated view, he wrote the Ubuntu article merely to trash Ubuntu for Red Hat, not because he cares about any issues. Hence his bizarre dismissal of GNOME’s deep problems. Apparently corporate loyalty is the source of his purported dislike for Apple and other things as well. Although he brings genuine issues to light, he does so for corporate (and who knows what other) loyalties only.

    This shouldn’t detract from the issue here – Canonical is bringing surveilance tech into Linux, and that’s very ugly. But Stallman won’t be a ‘community leader’ as I had hoped – the joke is on me again. He’s just another corporate whore.

    Comment by IgnorantGuru | December 10, 2012

    • If there ever were an award for the one who could cook up the craziest conspiracy theories, you’d definitely win it. It’s not about being right or wrong in your guessing. It’s about you making wild conjectures and denigrating people without sufficiently convincing evidence. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and all that jazz. In a way you are a bit like RMS. You mention some facts that raise the awareness of a relevant issue, but have the tendency to run off to fantasy lands all too often.

      Oracle is never seen as a “good guy” by anyone and I’m not sure whether you’re being intentionally slanderous and disingenuous by suggesting anyone thinks so, or just too full of whatever you’re smoking. If anything, RMS was the guy that specifically warned about Oracle’s intentions regarding Sun and MySQL. But I guess in your conspiracy marathon, that too has to be a scripted scenario and RMS was paid to do so.

      Dragging RMS into the Gnome/udev fiasco is hardly the right thing to do. Because this is inherently an internal mess and while you seem to be convinced that a particular group is determined to break Gnome, RMS doesn’t think in terms of Gnome versions. He thinks in terms of centuries and how to make free software a reality through activism. Internal fighting happens in the FOSS world every time big decisions regarding technical matters are made, and RMS is no longer on top of the mailing lists, directly involved with the technical practices of things like udev and systemd. He no longer has the time for that (even Linus no longer codes as much as he used to) and is now focusing on political matters like patents, MS, and Apple. Unless you can convince RMS that somehow Red Hat is a threat similar to MS (hah, that is only if you don’t know what MS has done), he won’t be sharing your conspiracy theories anytime soon (and that’s saying a lot for someone who loves conspiracy theories like RMS) and will defer the decision to people that actually code.
      If you want someone with a good opinion and firm technological grasp on matters like udev and systemd, go to the kernel mailing list.

      And about that braindead thing you quoted:
      “It is evil for sending the implicit message that its model is completely impractical and impossible.”
      I’m not sure whatever one must be smoking to think that following the FSF is advocating will magically make one a billionaire. That’s like saying listening to your mother’s advice on not being a jerk will make you rich. Because that is similar to what the FSF is advising people, don’t be a jerk and think about the community. FOSS is about the benefits of the community (including both power users and potential developers) at large, but I’m sure I don’t need to remind you about that.
      But does following your mom’s advice make you rich? By itself hardly. She isn’t a CEO or the head of a multinational corporation, and helping your neighbors all day is unlikely to make you a billionaire. RMS and the FSF’s stance is ideological. Just read up on why they think “free software” is better than “open source”. It’s not about the technical benefits of open source, but about the freedom that software is not supposed to take away from users. I’m not sure where money comes into that equation, but like your mom’s advice, if everything in your head is money, you should probably ignore it.

      Comment by Ash Klein | December 10, 2012

      • If it seems like I’m not providing sufficient evidence for my ‘claims’, it’s because you’re misinterpreting my purpose and I’m not trying to prove anything to you. I’m just looking into stuff and sharing some of the process, and some of my opinions. It’s my blog. You’re free to look into whatever details you like, or have a conversation with RMS and form your own conclusions. You don’t need me to think for you. And if you disagree, let me hear about it, but you’ll have to do better than this overused trash you’re spewing.

        I call them like I see them. You mock any discussion of ‘conspiracy theories’. Yes, this is largely a conspiracy, and not all that theoretical. Apparently you live in a fantasy world where industrial and corporate sabotage and espionage are only make-believe things – they don’t actually happen, and people aren’t malicious in trying to make their billions of dollars. They would never murder, intimidate, infiltrate, sabotage, and steal just for money. Further, governments around the world are not trying to manipulate, control, and subjugate people by all means available. That’s a nice world you inhabit, but if you ever wake up you might find that the real human world operates on different and quite ugly principles. Further, technologies that have large social implications, such as alternative fuels, free energy, etc., have long been the target of energy corporations and all of their slime, creating artificial technological ceilings. If you ignore all of that then you are as irrelevant as RMS. You’re not dealing with reality. But go ahead and ridicule me if it makes you feel safer.

        If you think something as powerful as the community contribution principles of Linux don’t come under various kinds of attacks, seen and unseen, you’ve a naive child. And if you think all public figures in Linux are what they appear to be, and aren’t on the take and ordered to infiltrate and disrupt projects, you’re more ignorant than I, and that’s going some. Further, if you think all the surveilance tech, and the desperation with which it’s pushed into Linux is just about marketing, you’re really clueless. If Linux was allowed to thrive on its principles, it would quickly overtake all commercial models, because even an army of MS, Google, or Red Hat workers can’t keep up with the ingenuity and sheer size of what the Linux community represents, or did represent. Collaboration is a far more powerful paradigm than competition, and thus must be suppressed and kept fragmented, alienated, unrecognized, and unsupported. Where that fails, it must be converted into a corporate product by brute force – where we are now.

        Speaking with RMS, I felt I was speaking to ‘establishment’, and no I’m not convinced that he wasn’t just another tool used to drive free software into irrelevancy. Recruitment of people in the Harvard/MIT scene isn’t exactly a rare thing. Read some history and inform yourself a little about the world you live in. It’s an old recipe and you’re clueless. But it is the nature of these things that we don’t have full facts to deal with – we may never know the truth of RMS’s loyalties, for example, we can only speculate and fit pieces together to form a picture over time. If your brain can’t process gray areas and subtleties, seeing patterns as they develop over time, and can only handle black & white ‘facts’ (whatever you think they are), you will indeed find the discourse here impossible to follow. This conversation is probably more for those of us who have been around awhile and aren’t so easily hoodwinked.

        This is mostly a history lesson at this point – the time to change it was long ago. I’m just scoping out a good way to proceed with what’s left. I’ve pieced ‘Who Killed Linux’ together pretty well to my own satisfaction – the pieces clicked together. If you’re not satisfied, then keep looking and enlighten us. But your childish version of reality is of no use to me – I look at things as squarely as possible, and I share my honest, evolving assessments.

        Comment by IgnorantGuru | December 11, 2012

        • For you and other readers who still can’t believe the deeper conspiracies and what these people will do to control any kind of information, take a look at this prime example of what the MIT culture has produced this week. And how about that – just look who they chose to head up their cover-up – um, excuse me, their investigation – of what happened. Since they always choose ‘their boy’ to lead such investigations, here is another example of the FSF’s ties to establishment. A founding director of the FSF conducting an internal probe at govt/spy-happy MIT?! Apparently he has their deepest trust to come up with a comfortable answer. <SARCASM>Yeah, he’s a real rebel working for the people.</SARCASM>

          EDIT: This article asks some probing questions that deserve to be asked about the Schwartz case, and puts some of the govt response into context. There’s a word for this: tyranny. It reminds me that the term “conspiracy theory” is just a spun version of the word “corruption”, and that corruption is a precursor to tyranny.

          And some more recent questions in this case.

          Comment by IgnorantGuru | January 14, 2013

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