Книга: Code 2.0

Bytes That Sniff

Bytes That Sniff

In Chapter 2, I described technology that at the time was a bit of science fiction. In the five years since, that fiction has become even less fictional. In 1997, the government announced a project called Carnivore. Carnivore was to be a technology that sifted through e-mail traffic and collected just those e-mails written by or to a particular and named individual. The FBI intended to use this technology, pursuant to court orders, to gather evidence while investigating crimes.

In principle, there’s lots to praise in the ideals of the Carnivore design. The protocols required a judge to approve this surveillance. The technology was intended to collect data only about the target of the investigation. No one else was to be burdened by the tool. No one else was to have their privacy compromised.

But whether the technology did what it was said to do depends upon its code. And that code was closed[2]. The contract the government let with the vendor that developed the Carnivore software did not require that the source for the software be made public. It instead permitted the vendor to keep the code secret.

Now it’s easy to understand why the vendor wanted its code kept secret. In general, inviting others to look at your code is much like inviting them to your house for dinner: There’s lots you need to do to make the place presentable. In this case in particular, the DOJ may have been concerned about security[3]. But substantively, however, the vendor might want to use components of the software in other software projects. If the code is public, the vendor might lose some advantage from that transparency. These advantages for the vendor mean that it would be more costly for the government to insist upon a technology that was delivered with its source code revealed. And so the question should be whether there’s something the government gains from having the source code revealed.

And here’s the obvious point: As the government quickly learned as it tried to sell the idea of Carnivore, the fact that its code was secret was costly. Much of the government’s efforts were devoted to trying to build trust around its claim that Carnivore did just what it said it did. But the argument “I’m from the government, so trust me” doesn’t have much weight. And thus, the efforts of the government to deploy this technology — again, a valuable technology if it did what it said it did — were hampered.

I don’t know of any study that tries to evaluate the cost the government faced because of the skepticism about Carnivore versus the cost of developing Carnivore in an open way[4]. I would be surprised if the government’s strategy made fiscal sense. But whether or not it was cheaper to develop closed rather than open code, it shouldn’t be controversial that the government has an independent obligation to make its procedures — at least in the context of ordinary criminal prosecution — transparent. I don’t mean that the investigator needs to reveal the things he thinks about when deciding which suspects to target. I mean instead the procedures for invading the privacy interests of ordinary citizens.

The only kind of code that can do that is “open code.” And the small point I want to insist upon just now is that where transparency of government action matters, so too should the kind of code it uses. This is not the claim that all government code should be public. I believe there are legitimate areas within which the government can act secretly. More particularly, where transparency would interfere with the function itself, then there’s a good argument against transparency. But there were very limited ways in which a possible criminal suspect could more effectively evade the surveillance of Carnivore just because its code was open. And thus, again, open code should, in my view, have been the norm.

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