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Are cell phones 'Stalin's dream'? Readers weigh in

Jon Brodkin | March 16, 2011
Stallman is right. Stallman is a crackpot. Reactions to Richard Stallman's warnings on cell phone surveillance.

FRAMINGHAM, 16 MARCH 2011 - We've all seen it in movies and TV shows: a criminal or whistleblower being tracked by the government takes the battery out of his cell phone and throws them both in a river. Presto: You're off the grid.

But is such behavior necessary for those of us who don't gain attention from a large and powerful organization with sophisticated surveillance technology?

Richard Stallman says yes.

"I don't have a cell phone. I won't carry a cell phone," says Stallman, founder of the free software movement and creator of the GNU operating system. "It's Stalin's dream. Cell phones are tools of Big Brother. I'm not going to carry a tracking device that records where I go all the time, and I'm not going to carry a surveillance device that can be turned on to eavesdrop."

Stallman's comments on mobile phones and the free software movement, reported in Network World Monday, set off a wave of debate online. Readers weighed in with more than 1,000 comments, including 700 or so on Slashdot alone and hundreds more on social news aggregation sites like Reddit, Fark and Ycombinator.

Stallman advocates free software - meaning the user is free to examine the source code, alter it and redistribute it as he  wishes. If smartphones used free software, users would have the freedom to prevent governments and other organizations from tracking them, Stallman argues. None of the popular mobile operating systems, including iPhone and Android, meet his criteria.

Let's take a look at some of the online debate spurred by Stallman's theory:

Stallman is right:

"RMS is seen as crying wolf, but many of his weirdest predictions have come true," writes user Compaqt on Slashdot. "We're already there with Amazon's actions regarding remote Kindle book manipulation."

"Any device on the net can be used and is used as a tracking device," an anonymous commenter on writes. "Big brother is already listening in. The NSA [National Security Agency] filters everything on the Internet right now. If you really don't want to be tracked, then kill your net connection and get another identity."

Some commenters pointed to previous news reports about FBI surveillance teams eavesdropping on cell phone conversations, and a new program in Beijing to track the location of mobile phone users.

"Remember the article on government snooping while the phone's turned off? The fact that cell phones can and do track you is blindingly true, but for some reason, people don't even want to hear it," the reader Compaqt said.


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