Today, Bruce Schneier brought attention to privacy concerns surrounding Skype, a very popular (over 600 million users) VoIP service that has since been acquired by Microsoft. In particular, users are concerned over what entities may be able to gain access to their “private” conversations through the service—Microsoft has refused to answer those kinds of questions. While the specific example of Skype is indeed concerning, it raises a more general issue that I wish to discuss: The role of free software and SaaS (software as a service).
To quote Schneier:
We have no choice but to trust Microsoft. Microsoft has reasons to be trustworthy, but they also have reasons to betray our trust in favor of other interests. And all we can do is ask them nicely to tell us first.Schneier continues to admit, in similar words, that we are but “vassals” to these entities and that they are our serfs. His essays regarding the power of corporations and governments over their users echo the words of Lawrence Lessig in his predictions of a “perfectly regulated” future made possible by the Internet. While Lessig (despite what his critics have stated in the past) seems to have been correct in many regards, we need not jump into the perspective of an Orwellian dystopia where we are but “vassals” to the Party. Indeed, this is only the case—at least at present—if you choose to participate in the use of services such as Skype, as ubiquitous as they may be.
Skype is a useful demonstration of the unfortunate situation that many users place themselves in by trusting their private data to Microsoft. Skype itself is proprietary—we cannot inspect its source code (easily) in order to ensure that it is respecting our privacy. (Indeed, as a user on the HackerNews discussion pointed out, Skype has installed undesirable software in the past.) If Skype were free software, we would be able to inspect its source code and modify it to suit our needs, ensuring that the software did only what we wanted it to do—ensuring that Microsoft was not in control of us.
However, even if Skype were free software, there is another issue at work that is often overlooked by users: Software as a Service (SaaS). When you make use of services that are hosted on remote servers (often called “cloud” services)—such as with Skype, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, iTunes, iCloud and many other popular services—you are blindly entrusting your data to them. Even if the Skype software were free (as in freedom), for example, we still cannot know what their servers are doing with the data we provide to them. Even if Skype's source code was plainly visible, the servers act as a black box. Do they monitor your calls? Does Facebook abuse your data? How is that data stored—what happens in the event of a data breach, or in the event of a warrant/subpoena?
The only way to be safe from these providers is to reject these services entirely and use your own software on your own PC, or use software that will connect directly to your intended recipient without going through a 3rd party. (Never mind your ISP; that is a separate issue entirely.) If you must use a 3rd party service, ensure that you can adequately encrypt your communications (e.g. using GPG to encrypt e-mail communications)—something that may not necessarily be easy/possible to do, especially if the software is proprietary and works against you.
The EFF has published useful information on protecting yourself against surveillance, covering topics such as encryption and anonymization.
If we are to resist the worlds that Lessig and Schneier describe, then we must stand up for our right to privacy and demand action. Who will have your back when we're on the brink of “perfect regulation”; who will stand up for your rights and work with you—not against you—to preserve your liberties? Without this push, services like Skype empower governments and other entities to work toward perfect regulation—to continuously spy on everything that we do. With everyone putting their every thought and movement on services like Facebook, Twitter and Skype, the Orwellian Thought Police have the ability to manifest in a form that not even Orwell could have imagined—unless it is stopped.
To help preserve your ever-dwindling rights online, consider becoming a member of or participating in the campaigns of the Free Software Foundation, Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union or any other organizations dedicated toward free society.
(Disclaimer: I am a member of the Free Software Foundation.)
 Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. ISBN 978-0-452-28423-4.