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Tech by VICE

'Everyone Should Have a Moral Code' Says Developer Who Deleted Code Sold to ICE

Seth Vargo wrote code used in a platform called Chef. When he learned ICE was a customer, he wrestled with ICE using code he had personally written.

by Joseph Cox
Sep 20 2019, 4:13pm

Image: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Technologist Seth Vargo had a moral dilemma. He had just found out that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which has faced widespread condemnation for separating children from their parents at the U.S. border and other abuses, was using a product that contained code that he had written.

"I was having trouble sleeping at night knowing that software—code that I personally authored—was being sold to and used by such a vile organization," he told Motherboard in an online chat. "I could not be complicit in enabling what I consider to be acts of evil and violations of our most basic human rights."

Vargo wrote and open-sourced a piece of software called "Chef Sugar," which acts as an add-on to the main Chef software. Chef is a platform for helping companies manage their infrastructure. Vargo said he found out ICE was using the platform first from a tweet posted earlier this week, and then verified with online records. Vargo told Motherboard he also spoke to current and former Chef employees (Vargo used to work at Chef).

"Honestly, I was shocked. I didn't believe it. Chef was a company and community that I held on a shining pedestal as the epitome of community and inclusivity," Vargo said, describing his immediate reaction to the sale to ICE.

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"There would be no Chef without the Community," The Chef website reads. "Our community is welcoming, inclusive, and considerate. We act with integrity and professionalism. We give feedback directly, honestly, and clearly, and receive it in kind, even when it’s difficult."

Vargo publicly asked Chef to respond, but after several days he had not received a reply.

"After 72 hours without a response, it became clear that the organization was not interested in acknowledging their partnership with the organization best known for tearing apart families and storing children in containers," he said.

That's when he decided to delete the Chef Sugar code from his own Github and RubyGems, the main method for distributing Ruby code.

The move had a direct impact on "production systems for a number of [Chef] customers" and resulted in "customer downtime," according to an email Chef CEO Barry Crist sent to employees and later republished on the company's website.

"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.

"Everyone should have a moral code."

"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.

Vargo said Chef restored to an earlier version of the code and removed him as an author in the metadata, before reinstating the original authorship. In a follow-up blog post, Chef said the authorship change was an accident.

ICE did not respond to a request for comment.

Vargo's actions, and the support he faced from other developers including those impacted by his deletion, sits in a great context of technologists pushing back against ICE's use of particular tools and systems. College students across the country have also vowed not to work with Palantir because of the company's work with ICE. And more broadly, there is a recent wave of activism within technology firms protesting their companies' actions, such as Google employees pushing back against the development of Dragonfly, a search engine geared for the Chinese market.

"It's not my place to tell somewhere where their moral compass should point," Vargo said. "Instead it's our personal responsibilities to ensure that our own compasses always point toward truth and justice. I think there are a lot of developers out there whose code is being used for evil without their knowledge. The question becomes—what do you do when the light shines in? What side of history do you want to be on?"

"Everyone should have a moral code," he added.

Update: This piece has been updated to include more information from a follow-up Chef blog post, and to clarify the description of Chef Sugar's software.

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