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The Spaceship | Why open-source is important

It was a day like any other: Captain Ralph of the small cargo ship SS carryalot was taking a shipment of bavarian noodles to Epsilon V in time for their annual noodle festival with his partner, Egbert the Engineer.

Unfortunately though, he was having some FTL drive trouble. An hour or two previously, he docked with the layover station Alpha 9 to refuel, but yet the FTL drive suddenly abruptly cut out - leaving them stranded in space - and showed an ominous-looking triangle logo on the maintenance screen.

After trying the steps in the troubleshooting guide, he and his engineer were no further forward, so they called the official Shade Co helpline, the manufacturer of his engine and explained the problem. The Shade Co representative offered to organise a tow to the nearest official Shade Co. repair station to investigate the issue, but noted that they would charge a fee for this service.

Grumbling about delays, Ralph accepted the offer. Once they reached the repair station, a Shade Co engineer investigated the issue. A quick fix was not to be found though, as the Shade Co engineer said that there wasn't anything wrong with the engine mechanically, and that Ralph must have installed some unofficial firmware.

Ralph and Egbert had not installed unofficial firmware in fact, as a Shade Co software developer later verified. After a number of days of debugging and testing by an official Shade Co software developer (who had to be flown in all the way from Delta IV), it was discovered that the engine had actually been infected with ransomware that had encrypted taken over and encrypted all the engine's hyperparameters through a bug in the firmware that was introduce 5 years prior - yet nobody had noticed the issue previously.

Since the Shade Co engine was configured to only accept official firmware signed with the Shade Co firmware signing key, the software developer had to get the engineer to extract the engine, and send it back to HQ for analysis.

Fed up with the situation with Shade Co, Ralph got a new Teklacki engine fitted on the double. The new engine had the open-source light-rider firmware installed, and he took out a support contract with Teklacki - just in case anything went wrong.

Thankfully, Ralph and Egbert were able to deliver their cargo of bavarian noodles a few days late, but in time for the finale of the noodle festival.

5 copies of a pixel art spaceship launching from a launch pad, activing as a horizontal rule. Artwork by me - ask for permission before reproducing

It sounds like a problem straight out of a science-fiction novel, but Ralph's issue is one that is unfortunately all too common. I can't remember who said it, but I'll always remember this quote I heard while doing my undergraduate Computer Science course:

All software that is sufficiently complex to be useful, will contain bugs

This is true - but in the case of closed-source software (as in the fictional Shade Co's FTL drive firmware), nobody else is able to audit the software and check it for security issues - or any other kinds of bugs, for that matter. Open software (and open hardware) is a critically important problem and something I'm rather passionate about.

Of course, open-source software can contain bugs too (e.g. the heartbleed bug in OpenSSL), but the difference is both in the probability that such bugs will be found, and in the choice and control that users have over how they use and configure such software.

Support contracts that are popular with commercial close-source software are essential to businesses. These don't have to be exclusive to closed-source software: Indeed, Canonical for example provide a commercial support contract for Ubuntu (a distribution of Linux) called landscape.

Another example of this problem are the recent issues with the Intel Management Engine. For those not in the know, Intel CPUs run a complex piece of close-source firmware called the Intel Management Engine. Bugs in this mean that a clever attacker can access everything running on your computer at all times - yet for all the security audits I'm sure they will have done, nobody else (such as independent security researchers) can see the source code. This leaves it in a race between malicious entities and security researchers doing black-box testing to see who finds a flaw first.

The same goes with hardware as well as software. If the design of the hardware is open, then it makes it possible for others to analyse it, find and fix bugs, and contribute new features.

These are just some of the reasons that I really believe that open-source is the answer to a number of key issues with software and hardware today. It's not a perfect silver-bullet - unmaintained open-source projects can be a nightmare (just not as much of a nightmare as an abandoned closed-source program), and governance of an open-source project can be really challenging (thanks so much to @waldyrious to teaching me about this while I've been a maintainer for tldr-pages!).

All things considered though, I believe it's a better approach than locking software behind paywalls and hoping that nobody will discover a flaw in it. After all, security through obscurity is never a good idea.

Pixel art by me: Ask before copying or reproducing.

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