19 November 2008

Why Governments Must Use Free Software

Fab story here from Northxsouth (for background on this fascinating outfit, see my interview with its founder, Ryan Bagueros) about the very real perils of using proprietary software for national infrastructure:

Venezuela’s decision to move to free software happened after a disaster scenario like this actually took place. In 2002, the traditional, social elite-backed administrators of PDVSA (Venezuela’s state-owned oil company) decided that they didn’t agree with President Chávez’s policy decisions, which included re-directing profits from the oil company elites into social programs (including literacy and medical programs). These administrators were so adamant about their position, they illegally shut down the oil company, locked out the workers, and took control over the software that ran the corporation. Conveniently, that software had been contracted to a US company called SAIC, which has well-known relationships with the US Department of Defense and CIA. In response to the illegal lock-out and sabotage of oil production in Venezuela, federal authorities were sent to PDVSA’s headquarters to reclaim the facility.

The SAIC workers realized that they had committed an enormous crime and fled the country — after they had changed all the passwords that ran PDVSA’s computer systems and set themselves up with remote control of these systems. Since the software was proprietary, no one except the SAIC workers knew how the software worked internally and the oil facilities were literally held hostage by criminals who were now seeking refuge in the United States. Why US authorities did not take action and apprehend these criminals is up for the reader’s interpretation. If the SAIC workers had used their remote access to destroy the data, they would have effectively sabotaged oil production in Venezuela for months, if not years.

The Venezuelan government recruited some computer security experts who were able to reverse engineer SAIC’s software, cut off their remote control of the computer systems and return access to the legal administrators of PDVSA. After this startling information warfare scenario had played out in real life, threatening the entire economy of a sovereign state by a multinational software firm with strong ties to a foreign defense and intelligence agency, President Chávez fully embraced open source, free software and mandated that all government systems be migrated to this more secure solution.

As the article points out, if a national government doesn't have full control over the software that is running key elements of its country, it doesn't have full control. Free software puts the power back where it should be: with the user, not the manufacturer.


Percy said...

Wow. It's unbelievable that the contractors did that and didn't get punished. Good for Venezuela that they've embraced free software.

glyn moody said...

I think that had something to do with the fact that they fled to the US, which strangely refused to hand them over....

pcolon said...

Judging by the amount of proprietary software in the health industry; couldn't something similar happen in our countries?

glyn moody said...

Indeed. Or it might just be taken out by Windows viruses: