A Developer Deletes His Code to Protest Its Use by ICE

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, activist Shanley Kane highlighted a contract between Seattle-based software company Chef and 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 a minor stir on , 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 site GitHub. "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."In a Thursday night to 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 employees published an open letter decrying 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 have resisted pressure to sever ties with ICE or the military. Google, on the other hand, declined to renew a drone imagery contract with the Pentagon and said it wouldn't bid on a Defense Department cloud computing contract amid 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—or stop maintaining them —everyone who relies on that software is affected.
Control over a piece of software can get messy. Vargo left Chef in 2014, saying he’d been harassed by members of the open source community, but he 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.