If you don’t trust the software, why trust the hardware? Open source laptop solutions

21 Jan 2014 |

Most security conscious people know that Windows and OSX are laughably insecure when it comes to backdoors designed for exploitation by the likes of the NSA (but which represent a major security threat from criminal hackers as well). If you are a really serious about security then you should ditch all proprietary operating systems, and all programs that rely on proprietary code.

Although it is no guarantee that code has not been tampered with, as it it quite easy to hide malicious elements within it that are easily missed by even the most careful and experienced auditor, open source software at least allows for the code to be checked, whereas there is simply  no way to tell what ‘closed’ proprietary code contains.

It is therefore always advised that security conscious people use the open source Linux Operating System, and preferably a distro designed from the ground-up with security in mind, such as the award winning TAILS.

However, even if using the most secure open-source software available, there are elements of almost any computer that are not open-source, and are therefore suspect to potential tampering. Organisations such as the NSA have spent vast resources in man-hours and money co-opting software developers and chip manufacturers, including attempting to backdoor even Linux, so if you really, really want a secure computer, then you need to ensure that the system firmware, and even the hardware is also open source.

The Gluglug X60 laptop

gluglugx60

The only commercial solution currently available, and the only laptop in the world to be awarded The Free Software Foundation’s (FSF) Respects Your Freedom (RYF) certification, the Gluglug X60 laptop uses (somewhat old) commercial hardware, but is sold with a free OS, and most importantly, a free and open source boot program.

The most famous boot program is the BIOS found in just about every desktop PC. Similar in concept to firmware, this low level program effectively operates as an Operating System that lies under the main Operating System, verifying system integrity, loading and handling basic system settings, and loading the main OS.

Computer manufacturers have always resisted pressure to publish their boot program code, making it difficult for software developers to design free alternatives. This is a problem that has been overcome with the Gluglig X60 using the FSF sposered coreboot (formerly known as LinuxBIOS) project, and SFS endorsement means that all software supplied with the Gluglug X60 is guaranteed to contain no backdoors, is unencumbered by proprietary formats, contains no spyware, and all documentation and code is available under free licences.

The laptop itself is a refurbished Leveno ThinkPad X60 (first released in 2006), updated with a new 802.11n wireless card, pre-installed with the Trisquel GNU/Linux OS, and pre-flashed with coreboot. gNewSense and Parabola are also available as alternative OS options.

Starting at UK£198 (approx. US$326), you can buy the Glugglug X60 laptop from here.

Build a Raspberry Pi Netbook

riplaptop

The Raspberry Pi is great little machine. A single board computer about the size of a credit card and costing from only around $40, it was designed to be low-cost educational computer, and is thus perfect for experimenting with.

In this tutorial SilverJimmy shows you how to build your very own Raspberry Pi laptop, based on his response to The Raspberry Pi Challenge.

Much of the hardware consists of ‘a mixture of spare parts, unallocated electronics, and scrapped components & cables’ and is therefore not open source. The core hardware and most of the important software however are open source, with the notable exception of the graphics driver. If you can live with this, then building a Raspberry Pi notebook is an affordable, very doable, and fun way to obtain a highly secure mobile computer.

Of course, you could make your life even easier by building a less portable version, which will be equally secure against backdoors and other attack vectors.

Project Novena

SONY DSC

Photo courtesy of Bunnie:Studios

This nearly finished project is ‘probably as close as it gets to a truly open source laptop’, says Wired, and is built almost entirely using open source hardware i.e.  hardware whose specs and firmware are freely available.

Built by Cross and Huang, the founders of Sutajio Ko-Usagi, a hardware company based in Singapore, much of the laptop has been built from the ground-up,

‘The motherboard, battery board, and display adapter board are designs from whole cloth. Every trace on those PCBs was placed by my hand.’

The case and some of the components were printed using a 3D printer, and for a boot program the open source Das U-Boot was used.

Cross and Huang admit that the laptop is neither fast, compact or lightweight, (’ it’s no feather’), but is does offer almost complete transparency,

‘If you see something suspicious in the hardware, you have the opportunity to look it up in the reference schematics and see if it really is a cause for concern.’

Even here however, not all the hardware is open source – the screen, keyboard, hard drive, power supply, ARM processor and car battery pack  are off-the shelf-components, although these are unlikely to  president any serious threat to the Novena’s integrity.

To find out more about Project Novena you can visit its Wiki.

Conclusion

Although a completely 100 percent open source laptop has yet to be built, it is clear that there is a growing interest in the idea, and serious progress is being made in this direction. Hopefully larger manufacturers will start to listen to this growing demand, open up their source code, and even produce open source devices. Well, we can but hope…

Author Picture Written by Douglas Crawford
I am a freelance writer, technology enthusiast and lover of life who enjoys spinning words and sharing knowledge for a living. Find me on Google+