Now crowdfunding: A laptop that protects your digital rights

Purism's laptop is almost 100 percent open source and features preinstalled privacy protection software

librem laptop opened right side jpg project body

Do you have any idea what your laptop is doing deep down? Is there any way to find out? Usually, the answer is no. Anything could be in there, and as Edward Snowden’s revelations have disclosed, plenty of people in official positions want to make sure that "could be" becomes "is."

Until now, if you wanted a laptop where you or someone you trust could inspect all the source code needed to use it, you had to build it yourself. But a new crowdfunding campaign wants to make a laptop that's designed to use open source software and comes with open source-licensed code to everything, even the firmware.

Purism has designed a high-end laptop that, as far as reasonably possible, respects your essential freedoms -- especially software freedom, but also privacy and device hackability. That’s achieved by selecting components not just for their performance characteristics, but also for their compatibility with those freedoms. Specifically, the device will:

  • Arrive preloaded exclusively with open source software
  • Use chips that have open source drivers
  • Avoid any requirement for binary-only firmware loading
  • Include privacy protection software by defaults
  • Have a high-end specification

Purism’s Librem 15 ticks all those boxes, although the company have yet to persuade its silicon suppliers to liberate the source code to the loadable firmware and BIOS. Founder Todd Weaver told me:

Our goal is to offer completely freed hardware. One main reason I formed Purism was to be able to have manufacturing leverage to free all component hardware firmware. This will take a lot of effort, but our company believes at its heart and soul in completely free hardware, with users' help we will get there.... We are working to free this Intel FSP binary, but it is not yet freed.

Bringing new, specialized ideas to market is never easy, but this project has an even higher bar to satisfy. The people most likely to want a software-freedom-compatible, high-end laptop will also care about the company supplying it, the software used for its website, and especially the ethical soundness of the crowdfunding site.

Weaver has spent time seeking endorsement from the Free Software Foundation's exacting Respects Your Freedom certification program and believes the Librem 15 will meet the standards when it finally enters commercial-scale production. He may not achieve an endorsement from Richard Stallman on his first attempt -- Stallman already has a lightweight, full-free-software laptop running GNU/Linux; plus, the first batch of laptops won't have the free-software BIOS Stallman requires. But Stallman told me that the FSF recommends supporting the project because it's aiming for the right goal and has a chance of getting there.

Weaver told me the selection of the crowdfunding site was important. His choice, Crowd Supply, has been working directly with the FSF to make its website respectful of customer software freedom, specifically relating to the JavaScript running the payment and checkout experience most websites forget to make open source. Crowd Supply is the first crowdfunding platform to do this.

The prototype device itself is MacBook-like, with sleek lines and a metal body protecting a nice screen and plenty of storage. The design uses both an Intel graphics chip integrated with the CPU and a separate Nvidia graphics chip for 3D acceleration with a fully open source driver.

The crowdfunding campaign is now in full swing. It's refreshing to see a startup venture whose first priority is protecting privacy and software freedom, rather than collecting customer information and loading commercially licensed software by default. The promise is appealing, but the  $250,000 funding goal is ambitious for a niche project. If you want to join in, visit the Librem 15's Crowd Supply page.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.