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In wake of developer protest, software firm cuts ties with ICE

Chef moved from publicly defending its work to cutting ties.


David Gilmour


Posted on Sep 23, 2019   Updated on May 20, 2021, 3:07 am CDT

After software developer Seth Vargo’s protest on Thursday temporarily brought technology company Chef to its knees, the company moved from publicly defending its work for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to announcing on Monday that it would be dropping those contracts moving into next year.

In a lengthy statement, Chef CEO Barry Crist described how after company executives had engaged in “deep introspection and dialog” they had decided not to “renew current contracts with ICE and CBP when they expire over the next year” and promised to donate funds to the charities helping those “impacted policy of family separation.”

The statement only hinted at the “partial service outage last week” caused when a former employee decided to pull open-source code from his personal repositories on Github and RubyGems in protest after he found out that Chef was providing a platform for infrastructure management to ICE. 

“When I learned that said distribution was being sold to and used by ICE—the organization best known for tearing apart families and locking children in cages—I was having trouble sleeping,” Vargo told Mashable.

Last week, the company’s $95,000 federal contact with the controversial agency was exposed. Activists have been protesting technology companies which hold such contracts, saying that in working for ICE those companies enable raids against undocumented immigrants and the separation of families.

“I reached out to Chef about their ICE partnership and no one responded after 72 hours,” Vargo continued. “I had hoped to take a less disruptive route, but their silence was deafening. Thus I pulled my code.”

Those open-source contributions, Vargo knew, were being used as part of Chef’s distribution bundles. Chef’s dependency on his code, however, was made clear when the company’s commercial operations were temporarily but substantially disrupted.

The company quickly restored an older copy of the code later that day, at first without acknowledging Vargo as author—something the company later said was an accidental error. After public outrage online, the company eventually rectified this.

Over the weekend, a bitter and public exchange played out as Chef lashed out at Vargo for his actions.

“Part of the challenge was that [Vargo] actually didn’t have authorization to remove those assets. And the assets were not his to begin with. They were actually created under a time when that particular individual was an employee of Chef. And so therefore, the assets were Chef’s assets, and not his assets to remove,” company CTO Corey Scobie said.

At the same time, responding to Vargo’s criticism, Crist defended its government contracts with ICE.

“I do not believe that it is appropriate, practical, or within our mission to examine specific government projects with the purpose of selecting which U.S. agencies we should or should not do business,” the CEO wrote on Thursday. “My goal is to continue growing Chef as a company that transcends numerous U.S. presidential administrations.”

In response, Vargo defended his actions by claiming firstly that Chef’s executives simply didn’t understand the licensing terms and that, in fact, they had violated open-source licensing by failing to name him after they restored his code. He also insisted that, contrary to Crist’s opinion, businesses do have a responsibility “to evaluate how and for what purposes their software is being used.”

As of Monday, however, the dispute over Chef’s responsibilities now looks settled as, in the wake of public backlash and Vargo’s protest, the company turned its position around.

“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 wrote on the company blog one day after. 

“We are committed to delivering an expanded ethics policy to define a systematic approach to evaluate potentially problematic customer contracts.”


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*First Published: Sep 23, 2019, 5:04 pm CDT