Open Source

DHS CIO walks back staff comments on open source

Shutterstock image: secured files.

Some IT professionals at the Department of Homeland Security raised eyebrows over recent comments on GitHub that suggested a proposed federal open-source policy could result in the "mafia having a copy of all FBI system code" or could give terrorists "access to air traffic control software." The comments were attributed to the CIO's office.

However, DHS CIO Luke McCormack has since filed his own official comments, noting that "prior comments do not represent DHS policy or views."

The draft policy, released for public comment in March, asked agencies to participate in a three-year pilot program that would require publishing at least 20 percent of their custom code. The goal is to save money and spur innovation by making the software used by agencies more open, sharable and reusable.

In the new comments, McCormack applauded the open-source policy's objectives of saving time and money but said he was concerned "that the requirement of releasing 20 percent of custom code will encourage releasing code without thinking thoughtfully" about how to get the most value from it.

He said the private sector has rejected the volume of lines of code released as a metric of engineering productivity. Instead, he suggested requiring that a "significant portion of at least 20 percent" of agency systems be released as open source. At the same time, agencies should be encouraged to refactor code into usable modules before release or developed with that goal in mind, he added.

McCormack also countered the idea that there were security risks inherent to open source.

"When managed appropriately, releasing code as [open-source software] and engaging with the community can have extensive cybersecurity benefits," he said. "Security through obscurity is not true security: We cannot depend on vulnerabilities not being exploited just because they have not been discovered yet."

Agencies "should thoughtfully consider what components and libraries they release, and build active communities around their projects to ensure these benefits are realized," he added.

Without proper management and feedback, he said, "we believe the value of [open-source software] is significantly diminished."

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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