Worries Over Defense Department Money for 'Hackerspaces'

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This fall, 16 high schools in California started experimental workshops, billed as a kind of "shop class for the 21st century," that were financed by the federal government. And over the next three years, the $10 million program plans to expand to 1,000 high schools, modeled on the growing phenomenon of "hackerspaces" -- community clubhouses where hackers gather to build, invent or take things apart in their spare time.

But the money has stirred some controversy. The financing for the schools program is one of several recent grants that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, has made to build closer ties to hackers.

Unlike the hackers who cripple Web sites and steal data, the people the government is working with are more often computer professionals who indulge their curiosity at their local hackerspace. But the financing has prompted criticism that the military's money could co-opt these workshops just as they are starting to spread quickly.

There are about 200 hackerspaces in the United States, a sharp jump from the handful that existed five years ago. The workshops, with names like the Hacktory, Jigsaw Renaissance and Hacker Dojo, have incubated successful businesses like Pinterest, the social networking site, and are seen as hotbeds for recruiting engineers and computer scientists.

"Magic comes from these places," said Peiter Zatko, a program manager at Darpa, who is reaching out to these workshops, looking for cutting-edge ideas in cybersecurity. His program has entered into 74 contracts, and about 40 projects have been completed, work that he said would have been stymied by traditional government bureaucracy. (Mr. Zatko made a name for himself as a respected hacker before joining the government -- he testified before a Senate committee in 1998, using the pseudonym Mudge, and told the panel that he could take down the Internet in 30 minutes.)

When his government colleagues see the results of his program, "their jaws just drop," Mr. Zatko said.

Many people say that hackerspaces are promising incubators for innovation and should be cultivated. However, not everyone agrees that the Defense Department should be playing a role, especially in high school programs.

"Having these programs in schools is fantastic, but the military calling the shots in American education?" Mitch Altman, a co-founder of Noisebridge, a San Francisco hackerspace, said in an interview. "I don't see that as a positive move," added Mr. Altman, who, in an online post, was among the first to take a stand against the program.

The controversy over the government programs led to a tense session in a packed ballroom at the Hackers on Planet Earth conference this summer in New York, where recipients and critics of the Darpa financing gathered to discuss its implications.

"If you grow a piece of celery in red water, it's going to be red," said Sean Auriti, who is known as Psytek at the hackerspace Alpha One Labs in Brooklyn, which he runs. "I'm just wondering how this Darpa defense contract money is going to influence these projects."

And yet Mr. Auriti himself is benefiting from the Darpa money as a member of SpaceGambit, a consortium of hackerspaces that won a $500,000 grant for research in space exploration and colonization technologies. He said he hoped that the grant would help him build a mini-thruster to launch backpack-size satellites into orbit.

But the debate over the financing has prompted him to establish a separate working group for the space research with Darpa. That way, none of his workshop's members will feel as though they are unwillingly participating in government work, he said.

Some on the conference panel voiced concerns that Darpa financing would steer more hackers toward military projects. Mr. Altman, the Noisebridge co-founder, said he viewed the influence of military money as a threat because it would lead hackers to choose projects that might appeal to grant makers, as opposed to following their passions, however idiosyncratic.

Everyone on the panel agreed that hackerspaces could provide an exciting model for hands-on technical education in schools, and Dale Dougherty, the founder of Maker Media, which caters to the do-it-yourself movement, said he believed that the high school program that his company was managing would do just that.

"I think we're looking at science and technology as content, not experiences," Mr. Dougherty said. "We're asking kids, 'Do you want to be an engineer?' and they don't know what that means. But if you ask them, 'What do you want to make?' they start thinking about doing something."

Darpa's Web site describes the program's goal as encouraging students to "jointly design and build systems of moderate complexity, such as mobile robots, go-carts, etc., in response to prize challenges."

But Mr. Dougherty said that the fears about his program were unfounded, and that he wanted the students to work on projects of their choosing.

"We're not asking kids to build weapons," he said.

Darpa has a storied history of making long-shot bets and hoping that a handful of them will pay off. It financed the development of technologies that led to the creation of the Internet, GPS and stealth technology. This cluster of bets on low-cost, innovative manufacturing is part of a strategy by Darpa officials to reduce development times in a range of projects like armored vehicle construction and cybersecurity fixes.

When Lt. Col. Nathan Wiedenman, a Darpa program manager, appeared in Army fatigues this May at a San Francisco-area do-it-yourself festival, Maker Faire, he said the agency's mission was to ensure that the United States would never again be surprised by the technical superiority of an enemy state, as it was when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik.

"To push the bounds of new technology, we have to physically make things," he said.

Colonel Wiedenman is managing both the grant for the high school program and a $3.5 million grant to the retail start-up TechShop (it is a bit like a Kinko's, but instead of copiers, members pay to user laser cutters). As part of that contract, Darpa employees will have access to TechShop's tools after midnight, when the doors are closed to the public, since Darpa has no lab space of its own.

Matt Joyce, an early hackerspace member who has worked with NASA and has publicly voiced support for Darpa financing, said he believed that the agency's interest in hackerspaces was a sign of their growing importance. But he acknowledged that the government financing would continue to provoke debate, because questions about ethics often loom large for engineers, even in cases in which the government allows them to retain commercial rights to their inventions.

"You never know when you build something where it might end up," he said. "I think there's a lot of folks getting the Darpa funding, and a lot of people watching on the sidelines to see what happens."

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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