This is my follow up on a technology grant idea to use free, open-source software (FOSS) to help survivors of domestic violence stay safe when using computers. To test this idea, I’ve met and discussed with Gabby Santos and Sobia Paracha of the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence (OCADSV). Our meeting notes are below.
We have two basic ideas to test:
- First, can we use live media to help survivors “leave no trace” on computers they use to look up safety resources or do safety planning?
- Second, is a lightweight and simple GNU/Linux distribution like Lubuntu useful to help shelters who have limited funds to upgrade old computer hardware?
112312 Meeting Notes
Sobia Paracha and Ethan Young
Demonstrated live media using a Lubuntu v12.10 liveCD on an Intel Macbook Pro. Lubuntu uses the Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment (LXDE), which looks and behaves a lot like a Windows XP computer, with a task bar, “start menu” and similar window anatomy, controls and menu structures. We discussed the system, how we could configure it to better support survivors in computer use, issues around training and deployment, and next steps.
Demonstration process for Macbook Pro
Sobia inserted the CD into her computer, rebooted the computer and held down the letter “C” on the keyboard to boot from the disk (on a Windows-based computer, it is often Esc or an F-key, e.g., F2, F10, F12). After a couple minutes, a full operating system appeared on the laptop running only in the computer’s memory. Nothing is written to the hard drive without the user’s explicit permission. Sobia could start a web browser, or edit files on an external USB stick, then restart the computer in her main operating system without leaving any trace of her previous activities on the computer, eliminating much of the “clean up” process or worry as to whether she has covered all her bases.
Sobia thought that live media (CDs and USBs) could be useful to drastically simplify the steps a survivor must take to “leave no trace” on computers they use to access safety resources or do other safety-related computer activities (planning, documentation, etc).
LXDE is designed to run well on old computers after installation, such as old “Pentium 3” or “Pentium 4” computers with 512 – 1024mb of RAM. As a result, a Lubuntu-based operating system may also be an effective way to breathe new life into old computer hardware that is often still in use at shelters that can’t afford to upgrade. Apart from making older computers faster and more usable, it also helps the environment by keeping perfectly good hardware out of the waste stream for longer. GSTEP has standard procedures it uses to install Lubuntu on old, donated hardware.
Other potential benefits of upgrading old shelter computers to a system like Lubuntu:
- It is free — there is no cost. It is “user built” — built by a community of people who use the software themselves.
- The code is all peer-reviewed. It is extremely difficult for a “rogue person” to insert malicious code into the operating system.
- It is inherently resistant to malware and viruses for many reasons. Currently, it does not require “anti-virus” software.
- It is designed from the start to respect and protect computer users’ privacy and security.
- It is easy to keep up to date: All software updates for all programs installed on the computer happen through a single, simple interface.
- Tools such as Ofris-en and/or Guest Accounts can turn the computer into a privacy-respecting public computer (e.g., in a computer lab) by deleting all changes a user leaves behind (accidentally or on purpose) whenever the computer is restarted.
- It is readily available in the world’s major languages, and it is easy to add support for other languages (such as Russian, Vietnamese, Spanish, French, Arabic, etc).
Training and Deployment
The basic system may already be useful with minimal or no customizations necessary. Deployment depends on the following (and perhaps other) considerations
- Make it easy for advocates to provide the appropriate media and usage instructions to a survivor. Currently, there are three main images most relevant: Intel Mac and 64-bit Intel for recent computers, 32-bit Intel (for older Windows-based comptuers).
- Whom should we expect to select, download and create the live media that a survivor will use?
- Should we expect and train advocates to download the correct image (.iso file) and install onto CD or USBs as needed?
- Or should a central authority prepare CDs and USBs to be available to advocates on request?
- Create safety-oriented usage instructions covering the startup process, basic tasks (starting a web browser, starting a word processor), some system-specific safety tips (how to use multiple desktops for added privacy)
- LiveSafe media (CD or USB) should have inconspicuous labels/branding so as to not arouse suspicion if an abuser or an abuser’s ally happens across the CD or flash drive
- Supplement usage instructions with safety training on when/where and how to use to prevent discovery (this training is already available in context of web browsers and web history)
- Provide a clear, concise explanation of what the live media does and does NOT protect against
- Maybe a graphical continuum of privacy/security risks and threats?
The following points may improve the project for survivor use
- Use LXDE — most people are familiar with Windows interface, and it works well on old and new hardware.
- Wireless is hit and miss — don’t expect wireless on a laptop to work automatically.
- Simplification / Clarification:
- After the language selection screen, bypass “install” etc menu and automatically boot into the desktop
- Rename some of the default programs as they appear in the menu (e.g., “Xpad” should be “sticky notes”)
- Replace cryptic programs menu logo with a picture label that simply says, “Programs”
- Hide the “install Lubuntu” desktop icon by moving it to the program menu
- Use existing GSTEP setup procedures: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1GW2uKMJ2PRHjB4w9Xbopq758v3HIOA4u4YwRIkwdePg/edit#
- Install a web link and a PDF file (for offline usage) on the desktop that contain information: “Access resources near you”
Based on the above, we determined the following steps to implement the project
- Get feedback from NNEDV mailing list — Sobia will facilitate introductions
- Assess local limited test deployment
- Sobia will initiate conversation over email w/Gabby and/or Vanessa
- We will need to develop initial basic training as per the “trianing and deployment” section above
- School partnership for additional human resources
- draft up internship position(s)
- contact PSU, WU, (other?) WS programs, WRCs, etc to inquire about student interest
- use student interns to help with technical setup work and further development and implementation of training and deployment