When Should Open Source Be Written Into Law?

by Ostatic Staff - Jan. 22, 2012

As a systems administrator, I tend to think about source code and computing platform in large numbers. Computers however are getting smaller and more powerful, and the reality of computers that we put in or on our body as a normal daily routine is coming closer, and for many is already here. When our safety, our liberty, and our sense of humanity are tied to programmable devices, should we not only hope, but expect that we should have the right to examine how these devices function?

Last August Karen Sandler, the executive directory of the GNOME foundation gave a short talk about her implanted defibrillator, a device which can shock her heart to revive her if it stops functioning. After hearing the news that she would need to wear the device, she asked the manufacturer for the source code, and was denied. To make matters worse, she found that the FDA does not review or have access to the source code. She also found that she had no legal recourse against the manufacturer to force them to release their code. To top it all off, the manufacturer ignored her Freedom Of Information Act request. Twice.

Karen wished to know how the device implanted on her heart functions. Since her life, quite literally, depends on the device functioning as advertised when she needs it. Software has bugs, and since the source code is not reviewed by anyone outside of the company, Karen’s understanding of how software works increases her anxiety. Karen is obviously not the only person with one of these devices implanted, but her story is a good starting point for discussing when and where releasing source code for public scrutiny should be mandated by law. American lawmakers have the time to discuss how the public should have access to movies, isn’t the public health and safety far more important?

I would suggest three areas of software which should be available upon request, without question.

  1. Medical Implants. Unequivocally, any programmable electronic device which we put into our bodies should be available for review.

  2. Automotives. Today I started our family van by pressing a button before we opened the door. The software that controls the ignition also controls various other portions of the automobile’s operation. Since our safety while driving depends on the vehicles correct operation, this too should be available for review.

  3. Government Service Devices. Voting machines are the most obvious example of a class of device designed for public use for an important service. Speed cameras are another.

If our well-being depends on a device, shouldn’t we have access to how the device functions? Before the digital revolution, most devices of importance were mechanical in nature. Even electronics were wired in a way that a person could open up and understand. The new times call for new laws, laws written to protect and enrich the public. Open source is not just about the battle for the desktop anymore.