Sometimes, privacy and open-source can seem like an odd mix. People who prioritize openness and transparency in their software might appear less likely to obsess over the privacy of their data. But in a reminder that rock-solid privacy standards and open-source software are not mutually exclusive, the GNOME community has announced a new campaign centered on making the GNOME desktop interface "one of the most secure computing environments available."
When it comes to basic privacy features, GNOME is already at least as robust as any other mainstream computing interface. It doesn't do anything particularly reckless to expose user data to abuse. Furthermore, some might argue that, in the wake of the controversy surrounding Ubuntu's Amazon.com search integration into GNOME's competitor Unity, GNOME is the more obvious choice for Linux users concerned about keeping their personal information to themselves.
The campaign announced recently by GNOME developers, however, aims to bring GNOME privacy and security functionality to the next level by integrating aggressive privacy features into the desktop environment. These include tools like Tor, which helps provide anonymity when working online, built-in VPN routing, better disk encryption and application containers, to ensure that security flaws in one application don't open doors into exploiting other ones.
Many of these feature represent functionality which, in traditional computing environments, is provided at a low level by the operating system or by individual applications. The idea of building this level of security into GNOME itself is novel, and could have a significant impact on users who would not go to the lengths of adding these privacy enhancements to their systems on their own.
Meanwhile, GNOME developers have even discussed the possibility of issuing security certificates from the GNOME Foundation, which would raise the organization's profile within the Internet community to a new level. And the development effort could also bring further enhancements to GNOME's homegrown Web browser (which is called simply "Web"), potentially making it a more attractive option for open-source users than other major Linux-compatible browsers, like Firefox and Chrome.
For now, the development of these privacy enhancements depends on the success of a public donation drive designed to fund them. It seems clear from the statements of GNOME developers that many of the improvements they envision are quite feasible, however. If implemented, they could give GNOME an advantage over other open-source desktop environments in what has become a very competitive niche over the last couple of years, while also providing the open-source channel more generally with a strong talking point for its privacy and security strengths relative to proprietary platforms.