open source, engineering professional ethics, complicity, and chef

So an open topic of controversy in open source philosophy/ideology/practice (/theology), among those involved in controversing on such things, has been “field of endeavor” restrictions. If I release software I own the copyright to as (quasi-)open source, but I try to say that legally you can’t use it for certain things, or the license suggests I have the legal right to withdraw permission for certain entities to be named later… is this truly “open source”? Is it practical at all, can we as developers get what we want out of shared collaborative gift-economy-esque software if everyone starts doing that? GPL/rms says it’s not workable to try it,  and the Open Source Initiative says it’s not “open source” if you try it. Both the GPL/”viral”/free-as-in-libre and the Apache/MIT-style/unencumbered/”corporate” sides of open source theology seem to agree on this one, so maybe the controversy hasn’t been all that open, but it comes up in internet arguments.

I’m honestly not sure how to work it all out in legal/licensing or social/practice-of-engineering systems, I don’t think there’s a pat answer, but I know I wouldn’t be happy about software I wrote and shared open source with “gift economy” intentions, to find it was being used — with no interaction with me personally — by, say, the Nazis in Nazi Germany, or, just another of course unrelated example, ICE/CBP. It would lead me to question how I had directed my labor, based on the results.

But that basic situation is NOT, in fact, quite what’s going on here, or at least all that’s going on here, in this article from Vice’s Motherboard, ‘Everyone Should Have a Moral Code’ Says Developer Who Deleted Code Sold to ICE, by Joseph Cox.

Rather than releasing open source software and discovering that someone had chosen to use it for unpleasant purposes on their own, Chef, Inc. instead seems to have a $100,000 contract with ICE of some kind, where Chef makes money helping or providing software to help ICE manage their information systems in some way (using the chef software).

And Seth Vargo used to work for Chef, Inc., but no longer does… but apparently still had admin permissions to code repos and release artifacts for some open source parts of chef. And maybe kept making open source code writing/reviewing/releasing contributions after he was no longer an employee? Not sure. The Motherboard article is short on the details we curious software engineers would want on the social/business/licensing aspects, and I haven’t done the research to track it all down yet, sorry; I don’t believe the specific nature of Chef Inc’s business with ICE is publicly known.

Personally, I was aware of chef-the-software but my own experience with it has not gone beyond skimming docs to get a basic idea of what it does. I had been under the (mistaken?) impression the whole thing was open source, which left me confused by what code Chef Inc “sold” to ICE (in the Motherboard headline) how… but googled and discovered it had been “open core”, but in April 2019 all the code was released with an apache license… still a bit confused what’s going on.

At any rate, Seth Vargo apparently was kinda furious that code he wrote was being used to help ICE manage their information systems, for organizing, you know, concentration camps and child abuse and fundamental violations of human rights and dignity and stuff like that.  (And if it were me, I’d be especially enraged that someone was making money off doing that with the code I wrote, not sure how that reaction fits into a moral philosophy, but I know I’d have it).  And Vargo did some things he could to disrupt it, at least a bit, (basically deleting and misconfiguring things that can, ultimately, still be fairly easily/quickly restored). I think he deserves support for doing so, and for bringing more attention to the case in part by doing so.

Meanwhile, these quotes from Chef CEO Barry Crist are just ridiculous. 

“While I understand that many of you and many of our community members would prefer we had no business relationship with DHS-ICE, I have made a principled decision, with the support of the Chef executive team, to work with the institutions of our government, regardless of whether or not we personally agree with their various policies,” Crist wrote, who added that Chef’s work with ICE started during the previous administration.

“My goal is to continue growing Chef as a company that transcends numerous U.S. presidential administrations. And to be clear: I also find policies such as separating families and detaining children wrong and contrary to the best interests of our country,” he wrote.

This is the statement of a moral coward. He does not seem to realize he’s essentially telling us “I want you to know, I have values, I’m not a monster! It’s just that I’m willing to sacrifice all of them for the right price, like anyone would be, right?”

He even suggests there is something “principled” about the decision “to work with the institutions of our government, regardless of whether or not we personally agree with their various policies.” While 1930s IBM agreed with the “principle” of aiding efforts of any government whose money was good, say, maybe in Germany, “whether or not anyone personally agreed” with the efforts they were aiding… this is a self-serving sociopathic Ayn Rand-ian “principle”.

These comments kept burning me up, I couldn’t get them out of my head… and then I realized this is basically the conversation in Boots Riley’s batshit political parody(?) 2018 film Sorry to Bother You (SPOILERS AHEAD) , in what was for me the most genius gut-punchingly horribly hilarious moment in a movie that has plenty of them. A scene which doesn’t come across nearly as well in just text transcript without the context and body language/tone and exceptional delivery of the actors, but I’m gonna give it to you anyway.

So at one point in Sorry To Bother You, just after Cash has discovered the results of the rich CEO’s secret plan for engineering horse-human hybrids out of kidnapped conscripts, the CEO has shown the terrified and confused Cash an in-house promotional video explaining the, uh, well-thought-out business model for horse-human slave labor. The video ends, and:

CEO: See? It’s all just a big misunderstanding.

Cash: This ain’t no fucking ‘misunderstanding’, man.
So, you making half-human half-horse fucking things so you can make more money?

CEO: Yeah, basically. I just didn’t want you to think I was crazy. That I was doing this for no reason. Because this isn’t irrational.

Cash: Oh…. Cool. Alright. Cool…. No, I understand. I just, I just got to leave now, man. So, please get the fuck out of my way.

Of course we don’t agree with what ICE is doing, we don’t want you to think we’re crazy… it’s just that the principle of being able to “grow Chef as a company” by helping them do those things wins out, right?

With what I know now, I would  never work for Chef Inc. or contribute any code to any chef projects, and will be using any power or sway I have to dissuade anyone i work for or with from using chef. (I don’t think any do at present, so it’s not much of a sacrifice/risk to me at present, to be sure).  Engineering ethics matter. These are not good times, it’s not always clear to me either what to do about it, anyone who sees somewhere they can afford to intervene should take the opportunity, we can’t afford to skip any, large or small.

Incidentally I found out about this story by  seeing this cryptic post on the rubygems blog, noticing it via the Rubyland News aggregator I run, and then googling to figure out what weirdness was going on with chef to prompt that, and finding the Motherboard article by Joseph Cox. Also credit to @shanley for, apparently, discovering and publicizing the Chef/ICE contract. And to rubygems/Evan Phoenix for transparently posting evidence they had forcibly changed gem ownership, rather than do it silently.

I probably wouldn’t have noticed at all if Vargo hadn’t made it a story by engaging in some relatively easy low-risk direct action, which is really the least any of us should do in such a situation, but Vargo deserves credit and support because so many of us engineers maybe wouldn’t have, but it’s time for us to figure out how to step up.

In some more welcome news from here in Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University/Medical Institutions is reported to have recently declined to renew some ICE contracts — including one for “tactical medical training” to agents in the Homeland Security Investigations unit of ICE, which carries out workplace raids — occurring after a Hopkins student-led but community coalition campaign of public pressure on Hopkins to stop profiting from supporting and facilitating ICE/CBP human rights violations. While the ~$1.7 million ICE contracts were relatively small money in Hopkins terms, Hopkins as an institution has previously shown itself to be quite dedicated to that same “principle” of never, ever, turning down a buck; may this breach of profiteering “principle” lead to many more.

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