Computer server management software is usually pretty boring. But when that software is sold to a federal agency that separates families and detains children, even esoteric technology can become the center of controversy.
On Monday, activistShanley Kanehighlighted acontractbetween Seattle-based software companyChefand US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Chef develops and sells open source software for configuring servers and cites Alaska Airlines, Google, Facebook, and Capital One as customers.
The ICE contract created aminor stironTwitter, but by Thursday morning, Chef hadn’t made a public statement about the controversy. Discouraged by the company’s silence, former Chef employee Seth Vargo removed several Chef-related open source tools that he had hosted on two code repositories. They included Sugar, a tool designed to make it easier to work with Chef’s software that’s widely used by Chef customers, though it’s not clear if ICE uses it. “I have removed my code from the Chef ecosystem,” Vargo wrote on the code hosting siteGitHub. “I have a moral and ethical obligation to prevent my source [code] from being used for evil.”
That got the company’s attention. Users who already had copies of Sugar were able to keep using it after Vargo deleted the software. Chef CTO Corey Scobie says it’s hard to say how many users were affected. Vargo’s move, he says, “caused a significant impact on the global Chef community.”
Chef didn’t cancel its contract with ICE. Instead, it republished Sugar.
In a Thursday nightemailto Chef employees that the company posted online, CEO Barry Crist called Chef’s work with ICE, which he said began under the Obama administration, a “principled decision.”
Crist said he finds “policies such as separating families and detaining children wrong and contrary to the best interests of our country.” But, he added, “I do not believe that it is appropriate, practical, or within our mission to examine specific government projects with the purpose of selecting which US agencies we should or should not do business.” The CEO said he hopes Chef grows and ”transcends numerous US presidential administrations.”
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Vargo’s actions were among the most dramatic in a rising wave to activism by tech employees. Last year Microsoft employeespublished an open letterdecrying the company’s work for ICE. This year a group called Microsoft Workers 4 Good petitioned the company to stop developing augmented-reality technology for the military. Thus far Microsoft executives haveresisted pressureto sever ties with ICE or the military. Google, on the other hand, declined to renew a drone imagery contract with the Pentagon andsaidit wouldn’t bid on a Defense Department cloud computing contractamid employee protests. Vargo did more than protest. He made it harder to access software he feared would be put to nefarious use.
The Chef situation also highlights changes in how software is developed and the challenges those changes present. Much modern software includes multiple open source components. Even commercial software often relies on “libraries” of code created or maintained by outsiders. This helps developers work faster by not having to recreate common features and components. But if the maintainers of those components delete or break them—orstop maintaining them—everyone who relies on that software is affected.
Control over a piece of software can get messy. Vargo left Chef in 2014saying he’d been harassedby members of the open source community, but continued to host Sugar’s source code from his personal GitHub account and was still the registered owner of the tool on the code distribution service Ruby Gems. That left Sugar in his control.
Vargoclaimed on Twitterthat he owned Sugar, but Scobie says that under the terms of his employment, all of Vargo’s Chef-related work is owned by the company. Vargo tells WIRED that much of his work on open source Chef-related tools was done outside of role as an employee, where he initially worked in sales. “Regardless of my prior employment contract, I do not believe I am obligated to continue hosting that code or providing packages for that code under my personal repositories,” Vargo says.
Even if Vargo owns Sugar, Chef has the legal right to copy and republish the tool under the project’s open source license. Sugar’s license requires anyone who republishes the code to credit Vargo. Initially, the republished, or “forked,” version of Sugar did not credit Vargo. Scobie says this was an innocent mistake and credit was added as soon as the omission was pointed out.
When developers release their code under open source licenses, they allow others to use their work for practically any purpose, including making new copies. That leaves developers, like Vargo, who believe their work is being misused with little recourse.
Some developers have tried to push back against this by restricting uses of software that is otherwise open source. For example, the peer-to-peer computing application GPU wasreleased in 2006under a license forbidding its use by the military. Last year a contributor to the open source code-management tool Lernabriefly changedthe project’s license to ban ICE from using it. Earlier this year,dozens of software projectsadopted the “Anti-996 License” license, which requires users to comply with both local and international labor standards, in response to the grueling hours many Chinese technology companies reportedly require employees to work.
These sorts of more restrictive licenses have traditionally had a hard time catching on, in part because companies are reluctant to use software with strings attached. But that could change as developers worry more about how their code is used.
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