Home Open Source for America: The New Government Accountability

Open Source for America: The New Government Accountability

More than 70 major companies, academic institutions and high profile technologists have launched a campaign to educate US government agencies about the benefits of open source technology. Announced earlier at the O’Reilly Open Source Convention, groups such as Google, RedHat, Novell, Linux, Mozilla, Sun Microsystems and the Electronic Frontiers Foundation have teamed up to create Open Source For America. The joint effort is a coalition aimed at lobbying the US Federal government to consider using open-source software over proprietary code. O’Reilly Media CEO Tim O’Reilly and Executive Director of the Linux Foundation Jim Zemlin are just some of the board advisors.

Said Open Source for America’s David Thomas, “Technologies enabled by software freedoms can help make government IT deployment more secure, more cost-effective, faster to deploy, with greater privacy and the ability to help eliminate vendor lock-in.”

Nevertheless, lobbying will be no easy feat as smaller open source companies will have to jockey for position against Microsoft during requests for proposals. Furthermore, in the past government officials have expressed security concerns with open source code. Critics argue that exposed source code can be examined by attackers and therefore poses a risk. Nevertheless, another argument for exposed code can be made in ensuring security. By moving away from proprietary software models and giving free access to a system’s source code, governments are no longer dependent on a select few contractors for their defense. Instead, an entire programming community can be deployed to defend against attacks.

One of the government’s key open source projects is actually with the National Security Agency. The agency already employs open source technologies to address multi-level security on government machines through SELinux. SELinux was first released as a modified version of the Linux operating system and has since taken on a life of its own as the NSA works with open source contractors to continue to tweak security. While Linux users were at first suspicious that the NSA might be using the code base to spy on their machines, no back doors were detected in the software. Today, thousands of government employees and Linux users protect their machines using SELinux.

Another successful open source government project is Sunlight Labs’ Apps for America. In its first year, the project proved a resounding success in displaying how open source government efforts increases accountability and collective solutions. Apps for America yielded a number of great user-generated projects including call Congress Firefox plug-in and a site that tracks filibustering. Director of Sunlight Labs Clay Johnson was celebrated amongst other open source innovators at yesterday’s Google O’Reilly Open Source Awards.

Tim O’Reilly said, “An invention has to make sense in the world it finishes in, not in the world it started.” As new security risks take shape and new data sets become vital, governments need to consider open source solutions in their quest to provide better citizen-facing services.

If you’d like to contribute to government open source projects, check out Apps for America 2 and Open Source for America.

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