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The Pentagon Competes for Hacker Hearts and Minds

Maker Faire's decision to accept DARPA funding has reawoken the debate around the hacker/maker community's ambigous relationship with the Pentagon's controversial research and development agency. Respected figures such as Mitch Altman have spoken out against taking the money.

by Sabine Blanc On April 10, 2012

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Journaliste digitale en mutation perpétuelle, et j'aime ça.


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A clap of thunder in the hacker/maker community: Mitch Altman, respected DIY guru and co-founder of San Francsco’s legendary Noisebridge hackerspace, publicly announced via the hackerspaces.org mailing list that he would not be participating in this year’s Maker Faire, THE annual hacker/maker get-together. Some 100,000 enthusiasts of reappropriation descended on California for last year’s event.

Altman’s withdrawal comes in the wake of what he considers a compromising deal agreed between Maker Faire and the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon’s controversial research and development agency.

It’s official. I’m greatly saddened that I won’t be able to help at this year’s Maker Faire after they applied for and accepted a grant from DARPA. I look forward to working and playing at Maker Faire again, after they are no longer associated with DARPA.

The grant is part of a DARPA educational program known as MENTOR (Manufacturing Experimentation and Outreach), set up to encourage the creation of new design tools and collaborative manufacturing practices for students. MENTOR is itself part of the larger Adaptive Vehicle Make project, which aims to “revolutionise the way defence systems and vehicles are designed“.

Meanwhile, Jerry Isdale, a member of the Hawaiian MauiMakers hackerspace, joyfully announced that the Hacker Space Program, an international space exploration program, had been selected by DARPA to negotiate for a contract.

Those who want to flame about taking government money can do so…We just wont pass any $ your way.

The two announcements have provoked reactions that provide an insight into the ambiguous relationship that the hacker/maker community maintains with the prestigious DARPA, a relationship that calls into question a complex array of moral, financial and patriotic considerations, and a creeping politicisation of the movement. Mathilde Berchon spent several months immersed in the maker community in San Francisco:

The debate illustrates the divide between real hackers – more politicised, activists, some even anarchists – and the majority of the troops who associate themselves more with the maker community. The average member is a decent family man who tinkers with and fixes things in his garage, drinking beer, who loves his country and wants to defend it, without being a hardcore patriot. With this grant, Make is running the risk of alienating the more radical fringe.

Ultimately, the news is forcing everyone to take a side, redrawing demarcations which had seemed to have faded between subversive hackers and mainstream makers.

The Military-Industrial Elephant in the room

Dale Dougherty, an equally emblematic figure of the community, is co-founder of programming manuals publisher O’Reilly Media and Make magazine, and an organiser of Maker Faire. He wasquick to justify his decision in a long blog post, whilst also making clear he respected Mitch’s decision.

Our program would encourage schools to engage more kids in making by creating makerspaces and providing access to these tools for student projects, and use Maker Faire to showcase more work from students.

We were motivated to apply for the DARPA grant by the following statement that was part of the MENTOR program: “One of the biggest challenges we face as a nation is the decline in our ability to make things,” Dr. Regina Dugan, then Director of DARPA.

As a nation.” The program is limited to American schools, even though the hacker ethic rejects the notion of borders. Dale Dougherty also tried to put to rest some of the “speculation” that had been circulating regarding the grant. YES, the software will of course be developed as open source, a requirement of the program; NO, the students’ work will not be owned by DARPA; YES, the military did participate at Maker Faire in Detroit; YES, they work with NASA, the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation, because “if you want to work in education, you need to work in the government“.

While it’s worth recalling that DARPA funds represent just one facet of Make’s educational activities, what gives Mitch Altman and many others pause is that DARPA is part of the military-industrial complex. It’s a point that Dale Dougherty does not mention in his post, as noted by a member of the California hackerspace HeatSync on the hackerspaces.org mailing list.

His argument amounts to “the ends justify the means.” He ignores objections to the military-industrial complex, instead assuring us with talk of open-source. Why should the military be funding education when military spending has been astronomical and education spending has been strangled for the past decade?

Dale Dougherty simply dodges the issue.

MIT also produces engineers who work in a variety of fields, including the military. This is true of every university that trains scientists and engineers in the US.

Mathilde Berchon, meanwhile, has her own take on Dougherty.

He believes that his ideals are so strong that they won’t be swallowed up.

Care Bears

There is, however, opposition to the Care Bears thinking of “purists” like Mitch Altman. Following his own logic, he should no longer use the Internet, which is the modern descendent of Arpanet, the communication network set up to link universities working with DARPA. The Internet has a big fat military gene.

Jerry Isdale, the hacker who was so excited to receive DARPA funding for the Hacker Space Program, took to the mailing list to vent some spleen.

Sorry but I’m a bit confused by Mitch’s refusal to attend Maker Faire because DARPA funds its high school educational program, but his willingness to go to China and attend Maker Carnival, etc. The Chinese government (as socialist/communist state) is heavily invested in its industry, tourism, military and occupation of various former other countries (e.g. Tibet). China is seeking to benefit its military/domestic security, etc by bringing in western technology. Going to China is as supportive of the repression of Tibet as going to Maker Faire is of supporting US DoD”

The DARPA hacker

These heated, occasionally violent exchanges are set to continue in person. Mitch Altman intends to hold a debate at the HOPE #9 (Hackers on Planet Earth) conference, to be held in New York in July. He’s hoping to bring along an old hand who knows a lot about the subject: no less than Mudge, the mythical hacker who became a DARPA employee.

In 1998, members of Boston’s L0pht hackerspace famously explained to the US Senate that they could shut down the Internet in 30 minutes. Mudge, real name Peiter Zatko, was among this elite crew of hardcore hackers, and also a member of the infamous Cult of the Dead Cow. Far from an empty threat, the 30 minute warning was intended to make the US government aware of significant computer security vulnerabilities.

Mudge, like other hackers, continues to collaborate with the US state. Since 2010 he’s been working for DARPA, who hired him as program manager for cybersecurity as part of their CINDER (Cyber Insider Threat) project. That project’s goal? To prevent another WikiLeaks-style security breach. Mudge is also involved with the Cyber Fast Track program launched in 2011, which ostensibly flirts with hackers. Working with short-term contracts, CFT is operationally extremely flexible – a proposed project can be given the green light within seven days, an unheard of timescale within the industry. Needless to say, the concept has generated much discussion in the community.


Image Credits: CC Flickr Paternité The U.S. Army, Orin Zebest, tibchris

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