Urges users to give it stern shunning
Free Software Foundation founder and noted weird-beard Richard Stallman has called upon Linux advocates to reject the Ubuntu distribution, claiming the latest version contains dangerous “surveillance code.”
In a lengthy post to his FSF blog, the GNU Project creator slams Canonical, the company in charge of Ubuntu, for including a search feature in the latest version that sends packets to Canonical’s own servers without alerting the user.
First introduced in Ubuntu 12.10, the “Home Lens” unified search feature inserts product recommendations from Amazon into the search results, irrespective of whether the user intended to search the web or local files.
“This is just like the first surveillance practice I learned about in Windows,” Stallman says, recalling how a friend first noticed the Microsoft OS phoning home with search queries.
That type of behavior is a strict no-no to the free software maven, who lumps it in with DRM and hidden back doors as malicious practices that should result in the offending code being treated as malware.
“The ads are not the core of the problem,” Stallman writes. “The main issue is the spying. Canonical says it does not tell Amazon who searched for what. However, it is just as bad for Canonical to collect your personal information as it would have been for Amazon to collect it.”
Stallman certainly isn’t the first to denounce Canonical’s sneaky search, though he is perhaps the company’s most prominent critic to date, and one whose opinion carries significant weight with free software fans.
Canonical does offer a way to turn the Amazon search results off – though it only did so under pressure from users – but even this isn’t good enough, according to Stallman. Even if the feature were disabled by default, he says, allowing users to opt in still puts them at risk, because most won’t fully understand what they’re getting themselves into.
In its own defense, Canonical says the revenue it receives from Amazon for including product links in Ubuntu search results is an important source of funds, and that it benefits the Linux community because the money goes toward developing open source software.
Hogwash, says Stallman. “Any excuse Canonical offers is inadequate; even if it used all the money it gets from Amazon to develop free software, that can hardly overcome what free software will lose if it ceases to offer an effective way to avoid abuse of the users,” he writes.
According to Stallman, the mere fact that Canonical chose to include malicious code in Ubuntu is damaging to the entire free software community, because users have come to expect that community oversight means free software won’t contain malware. Ordinarily, he observes, users will dump software as soon as they spot something nasty in its source code.
“Perhaps Canonical figures that the name ‘Ubuntu’ has so much momentum and influence that it can avoid the usual consequences and get away with surveillance,” he writes.
Stallman’s solution? Just say no.
“If you ever recommend or redistribute GNU/Linux, please remove Ubuntu from the distros you recommend or redistribute,” he writes. “In your install fests, in your Software Freedom Day events, in your FLISOL events, don’t install or recommend Ubuntu. Instead, tell people that Ubuntu is shunned for spying.”
Canonical did not immediately respond to The Register‘s request for comment. ®