Wired has a troubling story of how the Senate Armed Services Committee is pushing a bill that would likely kill off an open source NoSQL project that came out of the NSA
. Like many other such NoSQL efforts, the NSA basically took some Google white papers about its BigTable distributed database setup, and built its own open source version, with a few improvements... and then open sourced the whole thing and put it under the Apache Foundation. It's kind of rare to see such a secretive agency like the NSA open source anything, but it does seem like the kind of thing that ought to be encouraged.
Unfortunately, the Senate Armed Services Committee sees things very differently. As part of a 600-page bill that's being floated, it actually calls out Accumulo by name, and suggests that it violates a policy that says the government shouldn't build its own software when there are other competing commercial offerings on the market. The reasoning is basically that the government shouldn't spend resources reinventing the wheel if it can spend fewer resources using existing code. You can see the basic reasoning behind that, but applying it here makes little sense. As the article notes, here we're talking about software that's already been developed and released -- not a new effort to rebuild existing software. In fact, those who follow this stuff closely note that Accumulo did "break new ground" with some of its features when it was being built. To then kill it afterwards seems not just counterproductive, but could also create a chilling effect for government open source efforts, which seem like something we should be encouraging, not killing.
What's really odd is the close interest that the Senate seems to be paying to this. The discussion is very specific, naming Accumulo and some of the competing offerings on the market. They're specifically calling out this one product. Of course, as Julian Sanchez
notes, there's a bit of irony in the fact that the very same Senate appears to have absolutely no interest
in finding out how often the NSA spies on Americans... but sure is concerned about what database it uses to store all of the information it's getting.
Of course... all of this raises a separate issue in my mind: can the NSA even open source Accumulo? I though that creations of the federal government were automatically public domain
, rather than under copyright. And, thus, putting it under a specific license might, in fact, present limitations that the government can't actually impose on the software.... Thus, shouldn't the software code actually be completely open as a public domain project? The government should be able set up an Apache-like setup, but one without any restrictions on the code.