Canadian Programmer Says U.S. Cut Funding After Comments
By Jennifer Lee
The New York Times
WASHINGTON, April 23, 2003 — A respected Canadian computer programmer says the United States government severed research financing for a computer security project he was working on after he made remarks in the Canadian press critical of the American military.
The programmer, Theo de Raadt, the 35-year-old founder of an international collaborative software project known as OpenBSD, had been receiving support from the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, or Darpa, a research arm of the American military that is closely tied to the founding of the Internet.
The money, part of a $2.3 million grant given to the University of Pennsylvania, was part of a military effort to create computer systems more resilient to hacking, viruses and other attacks. The American military estimates that it experiences 250,000 cyberattacks each year.
The controversy highlights the delicate balance between the military and the anti-establishment bent of some in the technology community. It also shows that the international pool of computer programmers and hackers, possessing vast technological expertise, is not entirely sympathetic to the American military's current role in world affairs.
A recent interview with Mr. de Raadt, published by The Globe and Mail of Toronto, portrayed him as being uneasy about the military source of the financing. He was quoted as saying, "I try to convince myself that our grant means a half of a cruise missile doesn't get built." The article also said he considered the war in Iraq a grab for oil.
Mr. de Raadt said that a few days after the interview was published, Jonathan Smith, the Penn professor who heads the military grant project, told him people had "expressed discomfort with what I had said." Then last Friday Professor Smith sent out an e-mail message saying that work had to cease immediately because the military stopped the financing and the project was "over."
Mr. de Raadt said this left the OpenBSD project in crisis because it had already committed tens of thousands of dollars to bringing together 60 programmers from around the world for a four-day "hackathon" in Calgary in May. Darpa money has supported other hackathons for this project.
Some cautioned about reading too much into the military's decision. "These kinds of `stop works' happen all the time," said Fernando Pereira, the head of Penn's computer science department. "Federal budgets and priorities change all the time."
Nevertheless, some computer specialists saw the incident as a rebuke. People quickly voiced their displeasure on Web sites, over e-mail lists and to the organizations involved.
On Monday, Darpa said it had not cut off all financing for the project, just money for the hackathon. Jan Walker, a spokeswoman for Darpa, said the agency was reviewing the rest of the project, which has three months left in its two-year contract. Decisions about financing had been made because of "recent world events and specifically the evolving threat posed by increasingly capable nation-states," Ms. Walker said.
Mr. de Raadt said the decision extended beyond the hackathon because the project's staff members had been notified this week that their salaries would no longer be paid by the military financing. He said the hackathon would go on, financed by modest online donations of $50 or $100. He noted that even while he was on the phone with a reporter, $65 in donations had come in.
"We are free people, we are hobbyists," he said. "We do this for fun."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company