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Soldiers Renege on Hackers

by Ian F. Darwin
04/18/2003

Editor's note -- The following is an editorial by O'Reilly author and UNIX old-timer Ian Darwin who comments on DARPA cutting funding to the OpenBSD project.

Long before there was an agency called DARPA, there was a US Military with attitude. One day in the 1960's, a five-star general happened to be making a surprise inspection of computer systems deep under Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs, CO.

In those days computers were slow, very slow by today's standards. So programmers would occasionally print out chatty little messages just so they'd know the program hadn't crashed. Many of the programs were provided by defense contractors, and some of the programmers were, well, not from a military background. A hardcopy terminal (IBM golf-ball typewriter style, very noisy) abruptly started typing near the general, so he walked over to see what it was saying. His face went red with rage, and he started bellowing, and he looked likely to explode. It turned out the console had printed the message "Ban the Bomb". The unlucky programmer was, apparently, on a one-way flight to a DEW-line (Distant Early Warning, cold war) RADAR station in Alaska, before sunset that day.

Fast forward to 2003, at the sunset (we hope) of the invasion of Iraq by American troops. DARPA, which funded the development of the Internet, has recently been very good about funding Open Source projects. Its funding for OpenBSD, as part of the University of Pennsylvania's POSSE project, has been reported in numerous media, one of the first being Soldiers Meet Hackers on O'Reilly's ONLamp.com. In Canada's Globe and Mail for April 6th, 2003, the project's irrepressible and outspoken leader Theo de Raadt is quoted as saying:

"I actually am fairly uncomfortable about it, even if our firm stipulation was that they cannot tell us what to do. We are simply doing what we do anyways - securing software - and they have no say in the matter," Mr. de Raadt said in a recent e-mail exchange. "I try to convince myself that our grant means a half of a cruise missile doesn't get built."

Was de Raadt sent to Alaska the same day? No. Perhaps it takes a bit longer for the Globe and Mail to reach the corridors of power deep under the Pentagon. A few days later he was told "that there were people inside DARPA and UPenn who were very uncomfortable with the article, but I was not told specifically what upset them." And on April 16th, de Raadt was informed by UPenn that all funding was being cut by DARPA, effective immediately, and that no explanation was given.

This cutting of funding for "foreign" hackers comes at an interesting time in Canada-US relations. While Canada (with British help) burned the White House back in the War of 1812, relations have generally been good. Many Canadians fought in the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, but four were killed in a so-called "friendly fire" incident when US warplanes bombed a Canadian training exercise. Partly as a result of this, Canada chose not to take part in the US-led invasion of Iraq. And because of this (and because of some very stupid comments made by Canadian government ministers and not disowned by the Prime Minister), relations between the two neighbors have been a bit strained lately.

The timing couldn't come at a worse time for Theo. For months he has been organizing a "hackathon", where many of the OpenBSD project's hundred or so volunteer developers get together in Calgary (where de Raadt and several other senior developers live) for a week of intensive hacking (and beer and camaraderie). Most of the sixty or so who are coming have bought their own discount, non-refundable airline tickets to this event. Funding for the lodging at this event was coming from the UPenn DARPA funds. De Raadt writes: "since DARPA is now forcing UPenn to cancel those Hotel accommodations, I would be very grateful if anyone can find a way to help us. I'm going to need to pay for it myself, since these people are going to come."

Was it Theo's comments that killed it? Or, as some have suggested, just a post-war budget cutback? If it weren't intended to make a point, the funding cut could have been done after the hackathon. Goodness knows the US Government has the resources to fund the thing. So this columnist concludes that DARPA has chosen to make an issue of de Raadt's comments. It's the modern equivalent of that one-way ticket to the DEW line.

Ian F. Darwin has worked in the computer industry for three decades: with Unix since 1980, Java since 1995, and OpenBSD since 1998. He is the author of two O'Reilly books, Checking C Programs with lint and Java Cookbook, and co-author of Tomcat: The Definitive Guide with Jason Brittain.


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