Late last week I pre-ordered the UBports Community Edition PinePhone. It’s not ready for prime time yet. Neither of the cameras work and the battery life from what I’ve read is around four to five hours and there are few applications available at the moment. So why did I pre-order it? Because UBports has been improving rapidly, my iPhone is the last closed platform I run regularly (I keep one macOS machine running mostly so I can backup my iPhone to it), and open platforms may soon be our only option for secure communications:
Signal is warning that an anti-encryption bill circulating in Congress could force the private messaging app to pull out of the US market.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the free app, which offers end-to-end encryption, has seen a surge in traffic. But on Wednesday, the nonprofit behind the app published a blog post, raising the alarm around the EARN IT Act. “At a time when more people than ever are benefiting from these (encryption) protections, the EARN IT bill proposed by the Senate Judiciary Committee threatens to put them at risk,” Signal developer Joshua Lund wrote in the post.
I used Signal as an example for this post, but in the future when (it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when) the government legally mandates cryptographic back doors in consumer products (you know the law will have an exception for products sold to the government) it’ll mean every secure communication application and platform will either have to no longer be made available in the United States or will have to insert a back door that allows government agents and anybody else who can crack the back door complete access to our data.
On an open platform such a Linux this isn’t the end of the world. I can source both my operating system and my applications from anywhere. If secure communication applications are made illegal in the United States, I have the option of downloading and use an application made in a freer area or better yet developed anonymously (it’s much harder to enforce these laws if the government can’t identify and locate the developers). Closed platforms such as iOS and Android (although Android to a lesser extent since it still allows side loading of applications and you can download an image built off of the Android Open Source Project) require you to download software from their walled garden app stores. If Signal is no longer legally available in the United States, people running iOS and Android will no longer be able to use Signal because those apps will no longer be available in the respective United States app stores.
As the governments of the world continue to take our so-called civil rights behind a shed and unceremoniously put a bullet in their heads closed platforms will continue to become more of a liability. Open platforms on the other hand can be developed by anybody anywhere. They can even be developed anonymously (Bitcoin is probably the most successful example of a project whose initial developer remains anonymous), which makes it difficult for governments to put pressure on the developers to comply with laws.
If you want to ensure your ability to communicate securely in the future and you haven’t already transitioned to open platforms, you should either begin your transition or at least begin to plan your transition. Not all of the pieces are ready yet. Smartphones remain one area where open platforms are lagging behind, but there is a roadmap available so you can at least begin planning a move towards open an smartphone (and at $150 the PinePhone is a pretty low risk platform to try).