The military-industrial complex cannot get enough of open source

From the DoD, fighter jets and rocket launchers, open source is embedded within the military and the weapon makers supplying it. Does open source have a people-killing problem?

Wikipedia Creative Commons. Photo: Rob Shenk

What does it mean to be ethical for the technology industry? Or to be ethical at all? It's no coincidence that ethics in general has been a point of philosophical debate for thousands of years; one difficulty tends to lie in squaring subjective morality with objective developments.

But it seems like a low ethical bar would lie in agreeing not to provide the software underpinning the deportation and incarceration of undocumented migrants, nor in supplying the infrastructure for automated weaponry and other instruments of death.

Developer and 'OSS troublemaker' Coraline Ada Ehmke recently sparked debate when she proposed the creation of an ethical licence for open source projects: a kind of Hippocratic Oath for developers that would add a crucial addendum to the radical 'freedom at all costs' ethos of open source and modify the MIT open source licence with a few extra conditions.

This Hippocratic licence would read: "The software may not be used by individuals, corporations, governments, or other groups for systems or activities that actively and knowingly endanger, harm, or otherwise threaten the physical, mental, economic, or general well-being of underprivileged individuals or groups."

It's now uncontroversial to state that the technology industry has opened its doors to open source software. The problem is that ‘technology’ happens to be a very large tent, and includes businesses of all kinds, including arms manufacturers and the military institutions that buy them. Granted, that has always been the case, but never before has every aspect of our day-to-day lives been so mediated by connected devices and the code that powers them.

Open source software provides the kind of active, community-led scalability that's basically impossible to replicate for even the most powerful proprietary technology vendors. Although open source code powers the vast majority of the web, a watershed moment that represented a shift in thinking for the Silicon Valley bigwigs arrived when the famously anti-OSS Microsoft declared itself friendly to the movement, ushered in by a change of leadership under the current CEO Satya Nadella.

Since then much of big tech has enthusiastically contributed to and adopted open source software within their stacks, whether by expedience, by necessity, or, more likely, both.

If software truly is "eating the world," as Marc Andreessen predicted in 2010, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the manufacturers of guns, tanks, and bombs, also see an opportunity in open source software.

At the Red Hat Summit in Boston earlier this year, Michael Cawood – whose job title: vice president of product development for the F-16/F-22 Integrated Fighter Group at Lockheed Martin – seems to embody the very concept of the banality of evil, held a six-minute talk before the main evening keynote.

Cawood peppered his speech with Top Gun quotes, and revealed how integral the open source giant (and now, IBM-owned firm) Red Hat was for the software-defined capabilities of "the world's best air-dominance fighter, the F-22 Raptor".

It is worth noting that companies like Lockheed Martin tend to be referred to in official communications as, somewhat nebulously, "leading government contractors" or, simply, public sector suppliers.

It's true that many of their programmes are not in munitions. Lockheed Martin, for one, was also a major beneficiary of an enormous privatisation drive under the George W Bush administration in the US, as Naomi Klein notes in her devastatingly prescient book, No Logo.

At the time Cawood's presentation felt totally at odds with the feel-good love-in that open source communities are often keen to promote and cultivate. Here was a figurehead of late-stage capitalism's dark underbelly, cracking jokes about a corny Tom Cruise classic and winning laughs from the room.


Take your pick of the top aerospace, defence, and private intelligence contractors and they will probably have talked about embarking on a "devops journey" towards "digital transformation". Thales is powered by Pivotal and its commercial version of the open source Cloud Foundry, and you can read a brief history of Northrop Grumman's organisational agility efforts here, or Raytheon's work with Puppet here.

The prevalence of open source in military institutions or defence corporations is by no means new. In fact, America's Department of Defense has long been at the vanguard of using open source technologies.

A 2003 report from The MITRE Corporation helped to encourage the department towards a friendlier view on free and open source software (FOSS), ostensibly to cut costs and boost efficiencies. Eweek published an interesting overview recently, but don't be fooled into thinking this code's all for back-office functions.

In a foreword from the Center for New American Security group in its 2016 report, Open Source Software and the Department of Defense, General Hugh Shelton - 14th Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs and former Red Hat chairman - describes the DoD as being one of the largest consumers of open source software on the planet.

"Every tactical vehicle in the US Army runs at least one piece of open source software," he writes.

Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth recently disclosed his thoughts to Computerworld on the fact that Ubuntu powers rocket launchers: "Pretty ugly," he said, before adding that his job is to "make things".

"I don't want to do the 'guns don't kill people' routine because I think that's pretty gross," he said at the time. "But I think open source has a number of really positive outcomes, so when I'm putting time into making Ubuntu amazing and getting the best open source software in everybody's hands, I feel like I'm doing that for all the people who are going to do wonderful things with it ... if there are people doing shitty things with it, I'll find some other way to hold them accountable."

Darkly amusing as Shuttleworth's remarks are – that he didn't want to echo the motto of the National Rifle Association before immediately doing so – and whatever you think of his postscript, the point about the NRA is a salient one. It's a defence that the STEM industries often turn towards. Technology, they say, is neutral. But is it? Is it really?


Increasingly there are grassroots attempts within organisations to hold their shareholders to account. Just how effective these have been or will be in future is wholly up for debate, but a significant proportion of employees at Google, Microsoft, Salesforce and Amazon have objected to developing technology used to terrorise migrants or image recognition that would help drones incinerate civilians in far-off lands.

Another problem is the contrast between radically transparent FOSS principles and the unaccountable nature of the companies that use it.

As Edwin Black, author of IBM And The Holocaust, noted in an interview with our sister site Techworld, it's all well and good that these businesses insist that they've got very stringent ethics departments, but the public is not privy to the ethical reasoning that they follow. (Nor are we privy to the mental gymnastics they're liable to take to get around their own rules and principles, such as Google's now-famously removed Don't Be Evil mantra.)

And so to travel back to the original point made by Ehmke: if we can't trust companies, organisations, and institutions to use public code for the public good, should some other mechanism hold them accountable?

Though FOSS advocate and OSI cofounder Bruce Perens applauds the sentiment of Ehmke's proposals, he is doubtful that this digital Hippocratic licence could work in practice.

Who should be culpable when the good will (and often, the free labour) of open source contributors is rolled into the "software-defined capabilities" of a fighter jet? It does feel a touch unfair to compare the unknowing bedroom hobbyist to the firepower of the American military, or the combined capital might of a weapons giants like Lockheed.

While Perens might be correct in that a copyright adjustment is unlikely to dampen the aspirations of the global arms trade, the idea could be further cause for introspection for the wider FOSS community.


Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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