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DebConf15 retrospective

2016-04-12 21:16:40
Last year, for the first time, I attended DebConf, the annual Debian developers conference. Since it was held in my country and a very great chance to get to know the large community behind an awesome open source project, I couldn't miss it, and I am very happy that I had taken the chance.
I was more than impressed to find a real family event (lots of parents came with their children), a very calm and relaxing atmosphere (we had a whole day to discover the beautiful city of Heidelberg), and a very ambitious team at the venue. Having taken away so much from the event, even though I'm not even much of a Debian user, I want to share my insight with the world. Let me summarize some ideas and a very meaningful chat we had with Jacob Appelbaum after his talk, because I agree with many of his views.
Hardware issues with x86 aside, he insists on the liability of operating systems and especially secure communication and privacy. He would love to see a Linux kernel patched with grsec (thus also PaX for memory protection, ASLR etc.) and configured to support AppArmor in the default repository of Debian and protocols like Appletalk dropped from it instead. Connections during installation should be encrypted by default with non-superuser network access, and services like NFS and Avahi removed from the base system. That would be similar to the setup of my Gentoo Linux system. Debian is a very robust distribution, empowering TailsOS and almost half of all distributions currently out there (just check the Linux family tree on Wikipedia), so securing the system would automatically contribute to the safety of so many machines in the world, especially servers. On the other hand, stability in the sense of compatibility is just as high a priority, if not even higher, so that packages cannot simply be dropped or kernel features changed. PaX/grsec can easily render many binaries inexecutable. Offering another installation set would be an option, but quite hard to maintain with the desired properties as described above. From 5 years of experience with Gentoo I know how much effort it takes to patch and build a kernel over and over again, so Debian cannot be blamed for not just doing it. Another aspect Jake stressed is compartmentation. I was first thinking about approaches like the Xen hypervisor in QubesOS, but that is not what he meant. He would prefer jails and tools written in languages like Go to make use of the built-in type safety.
These features would already be a huge challenge to implement, but he also suggested a sensible set of packages to provide by default to begin with: The Tor Browser and the Tor Messenger (he described its features and a beta version was released by the end of the year) or Ricochet (another secure instant messenger).
Those were very technical details, but Debian means a lot more on the ethical and social side. The Debian community has carefully established a web of trust for communication, contribution and maintenance. Not only do they keep discussions very modest, but also authentic. During chats I learned how their key-signing parties work. Checking identities (by means of passports or ID cards) is a crucial and mandatory part of the procedure, so one can feel very safe in their environment.

Finally, here are three quotes from Jacob that touched me the most:
'Debian does a lot of stuff right.'
'[The] main thing is to keep quality assurance [...] at a level.'
'We should try to build a world where we are free.'