A recent episode of the Disney channel “sitcom”, Shake It Up, included a rather odd comment regarding open source software. The exchange between the youngsters essentially suggests that using open source code can lead to software being infiltrated by viruses or other malware, and being a “rookie mistake”:
Boy: “Did you use open source code to save time, and the virus was hidden in it?”
Boy: “Rookie mistake!”
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As expected, the Internet immediately lit up with angry posts from free and open source software users. Was this meant as an intentional dig by Disney, who (as bloggers and commenters were quick to point out) were pro-SOPA? Or was it a simple case of the writers trying to make their work sound more current by using a buzz word they didn’t really understand? We’ve all seen TV shows or movies with laughably poor depictions of computer security, or marveled at feats of image manipulation that can extract the smallest details from low-resolution security camera footage; is this really any different?
Teaching a Dangerous Lesson
Regardless of how it happened, or what the logic was behind it, this little clip does put a very dangerous notion in the minds of young viewers. What they pulled from this few second exchange was very simple, and very bad:
“When I hear open source, it means there are probably viruses.”
The free and open source community has tried very hard to break the unfair connotations that have surrounded it for years. Its taken us this long just to make people understand that free as in cost and free as in freedom are two different ideas, and that just because something doesn’t cost you any money to install doesn’t mean it isn’t an industry leader in ease of use and capability.
It’s no wonder then that the idea of millions of young boys and girls seeing this very unfair characterization of open source has ruffled some feathers. Exposing an entire generation of children to the idea that using open source code can lead to problems could have a negative impact for years.
On the other hand, I can’t directly refute the claims made by our young friend in the clip (did anyone else think he looked like a young Bill Gates?).
What he says is not, in fact, inaccurate. It is indeed posible to hide malicious code in an open source application, and further, being lazy and using open source code you don’t fully understand certainly could lead to problems down the road.
Of course, we all know that the source code being open means there is the possibility for peer review, and therefore the chances of any popular application hiding truly malicious code within it is relatively slim. But that still doesn’t make what was said on the show necessarily inaccurate.
What Happens Now?
People on the Internet are suggesting everything from a public apology to the free and open source community, to demanding increased technical accuracy from writers. But I think that realistically, we all know exactly what’s going to happen: nothing.
Hollywood has a long history of glossing over the details of how technology works, simply because the vast majority of people don’t know any better to call them out on it. That is, unfortunately, not likely to change anytime soon.
Holding Disney, of all companies, more accountable for technical accuracy than any of the other production companies seems more than a little unreasonable. Especially when, in reality, it wasn’t really technically inaccurate in the first place.
Still, if in a few years you start running into a bunch of young people who are convinced that using open source software on their computer can give them a virus…you might have Disney to blame.