November 17, 2000

Whistler could be the latest weapon in Free Software's arsenal

Author: JT Smith

- by Tina Gasperson -

Whistler might be just the thing to convince Windows hold-outs to make the
switch to Free Software. Thanks, Microsoft!With Whistler, Microsoft is finally phasing out DOS in its consumer products
by bringing all its operating systems under the NT standard. For the first
time, an MS operating system is designed for use both on the personal
desktop and on the company network.

On the business front, Microsoft created Whistler with powerful
security configuration for network administrators -- such as the
ability to lock out any unsigned code, effectively blocking users from
installing their own software at workstations. Richard M. Stallman, founder of
the Free Software Foundation, calls this "an obnoxious policy, because it
gives sysadmins more power over users."

Systems administrators can set the network to accept and run only those
applications that have obtained a digital signature from a
certificate-granting authority like Verisign.

Needless to say, that wouldn't create a loving atmosphere for the
average tech-savvy network user. Sysadmins would have the power to block
anything that hadn't been signed by their department, says Bruce Perens,
webmaster and owner of the Open Source technology news site Technocrat.net. "I
wouldn't want to work in that sort of environment, but I can see why MIS
managers would like it." Sounds like a great work saver -- set the security
level and walk away. No more worries about those pesky users trying to put
their little utilities and games on the network.

While users may feel put upon, professional computer criminals just might
fall in love with Whistler security configurations. Rip-off a key or
get one "legit" with a false identity, and once inside the network, with
signed code receiving virtual carte blanche, there'd be wide latitude for
looting and plundering.

And yet there's another, possibly more pernicious side to the story of Whistler's ability to block out code - one that shouldn't surprise the Free Software community. Because home users will also be installing Whistler on their desktop PCs, the
"avoid unsigned apps" party line will no doubt be pushed at that level, too. Getting the right security certificates could be outside the budget limitations of many small Open Source developers, effectively barring less experienced Windows users from realizing the value of free software.

It is impossible to ignore the implications there: Don't trust any software
that isn't from a big-name proprietary company. Open Source software is full of nasty
viruses that will format your hard drive. Block it out!

At face value, that's not a huge deal -- after all, we're talking Open Source
for Windows, not true, free-to-the-core software made to run on free operating systems like Linux. Says Stallman, "It
will be somewhat unfortunate if this feature is used to discourage users from
running free software on their Windows systems. But the road of running
some free software on a proprietary operating system does not lead to
freedom anyway, so we must not accord it primary importance."

What does matter is how those Windows users may react to Microsoft's
open suggestion to can any software that's not big name. And, Stallman says,
that's why Whistler may ultimately benefit the Free Software cause. "If
[it] makes users of Microsoft systems increasingly regimented,
they may see more reason to reject domination and move to the Free World. I
don't think the regimentation is good, but I can acknowledge how it could
boomerang to our advantage."

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