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Tech by VICE

Company That Provides Tech to ICE Not Renewing Contract After Code-Deletion Protest

Last week, a former employee deleted open-source code he wrote for a tool called Chef in protest over an ICE contract. Now, Chef says it will not renew its work with ICE.

by Joseph Cox
Sep 23 2019, 3:19pm

Image: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

A software firm called Chef that provides products to some of the biggest companies on the planet is not renewing its contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The move comes after a former employee of the company deleted code that can be used with the software in protest over the company's work with ICE.

The news plays into the greater debate not just about ICE's use of tech products and subsequent protests, but also a ballooning activism community within tech companies and the broader tech community.

"While I and others privately opposed this and various other related policies, we did not take a position despite the recommendation of many of our employees," Chef CEO Barry Crist wrote in a blog post published Monday, referring to the widely criticized practice of ICE separating children from parents at the border.

"After deep introspection and dialog within Chef, we will not renew our current contracts with ICE and CBP [Customs and Border Protection] when they expire over the next year. Chef will fulfill our full obligations under the current contracts," Crist added.

Chef is a platform for helping companies manage their technical infrastructure. Facebook, MSN, and Capital One all use the platform, according to Chef's website. Last week, Seth Vargo, a former Chef employee who wrote and open-sourced a Chef add-on called "Chef Sugar" decided to delete the code from his Github account as well as from RubyGems, the main way of distributing Ruby code.

"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 previously told Motherboard. "I could not be complicit in enabling what I consider to be acts of evil and violations of our most basic human rights."

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Vargo's moves 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 shortly after the deletion. The post added that Chef started working with ICE during the previous administration.

But Vargo's deletion had a broader impact too, triggering a discussion over whether Chef should be providing services to ICE at all.

"I had hoped that traditional political checks and balances would provide remedy and that our relationship with our various government customers could avoid getting intermingled with these policies. However, it is clear that checks and balances have not provided relief to the fundamental issues of the policies in question," Crist's new blog post read. "Chef, as well as other companies, can take stronger positions against these policies that violate basic human rights. Over the past year, many of our employees have constructively advocated for a change in our position, and I want to thank them."

Crist added that the company is committed to expanding its ethics policy to find a systematic approach for dealing with "potentially problematic customer contracts."

Vargo declined to comment at this time.

Paul Prince, a spokesperson for ICE, wrote in an email "U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) fully respects the Constitutional rights of all people to peacefully and lawfully express their opinions; however, the agency will continue to perform its immigration enforcement mission consistent with federal law and agency policy."

Update: This piece has been updated to include comment from ICE.

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