The preamble to the Constitution lists a number of core functions for the American government. Any American who has ever listened to “Schoolhouse Rock” (or maybe just an obsessive listener like yours truly) can name them all:
Promote a more perfect union; establish justice; ensure domestic tranquility; provide for the common defense; promote the general welfare; secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.
As hundreds of years of history have shown us, however, those six simple jobs have left open a world of interpretation: what makes a union “more perfect?” “Justice” for whom? How tranquil is “tranquility?” What is the “general welfare” and does it necessarily guarantee the need for a “welfare state?” Which “blessings of liberty” are to be secured, and by what means?
And now, thanks to the machinations of Washington, D.C.’s corporatist concurrent majority, a new one has sprung up: when we say the government should “provide for the common defense,” does that mean they own the means of providing that defense? That is, when the government spends money to develop new military technology, but leaves the actual engineering of that technology up to a private company, do they own it, or does the private company?
This is not just an idle hypothetical to be pondered by political science majors. It is the actual query at the root of a conflict over intellectual property between the Department of Defense and Lockheed Martin.
The conflict at issue involves one of the Pentagon’s more notoriously mismanaged projects: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Along with being a project years past its deadline and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget—a byword for government waste in the Defense Department—and most obviously, an actual physical fighter jet (albeit one that only works a small percentage of the time), the F-35 also has a software component. It’s called the ALIS logistical system, an entire software infrastructure that is supposed to make the plane easier to fly and maintain.
The planes U.S. taxpayers spent $1 trillion to build might not even be ours, thanks to a quirk of intellectual property law.
In reality, according to former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, ALIS is a buggy mess, a system “so frustrating to use, maintainers said they were wasting 10-15 hours a week fighting with it.” It has also been shown to be extremely vulnerable to hackers when it does work.
In other words, it’s the defense industry’s equivalent of Windows 10, if it was programmed in the Ninth Circle of Hell.
Lockheed Martin claims that even though the Defense Department paid for ALIS, it still has to license the technology from the company. Given that ALIS in its current state is glorified malware, this might not seem like a big deal. But it is. Because one of the things Lockheed Martin has been using its ownership of ALIS to do is to prevent the U.S. government from fixing the software on its own. In other words, the Pentagon can’t use its own planes unless Lockheed feels like fixing the problem with the software.
This is bad enough, but it gets worse when you imagine that ALIS actually worked as advertised. In that situation, Lockheed arguably could refuse to license the F-35s to anyone they liked, for any reason.
Yes, the planes American taxpayers spent $1 trillion to build might not even be ours, thanks to a quirk of intellectual property law.
It gets even worse. Apparently, even when U.S. government documents get uploaded into ALIS, they come back with Lockheed Martin’s proprietary markings. In other words, Lockheed is trying to assert ownership not just over ALIS, but also over the data that is fed into it.
This would be alarming enough if we still believed we live in the era of apolitical or patriotic U.S. corporations. But we don’t. In fact, corporate political activism has become so ostentatious that the term “corporate vigilantism” has entered the lingo, and center-right commenters have begun opining on the dangerous rise of the “woke corporation.”
Imagine that Google, a company that recently refused to help develop Pentagon software because it objected to its use in military drones, had decided to take a much different route. Imagine the search giant had gone on licensing the software but had refused to license it for use in any missions of which the company’s woke staffers disapproved.
Or imagine Amazon had won the right to host all the Defense Department’s data on their cloud servers, and then cut off access to those servers because the Pentagon, or the president, was accused of violating the company’s “terms of service.” All these things, and more, become possible in a world where Lockheed’s theory of ALIS ownership stands.
There is an abundance of reasons why the F-35 should be abandoned as a project. But it’s telling, and perhaps appropriate, that this seems to be the first issue that is drawing blood and forcing doubts about the continuation of the program.
The issue is bigger than just one buggy, unflyable fighter jet. It’s a matter of national security and American sovereignty. If Americans don’t own the military that we pay to field, then we don’t own the force by which the U.S. government legitimizes its power. And if we don’t own that, we don’t own the U.S. government. And if we don’t own that, then our republic is finished.
A certain risible newspaper slogan runs “democracy dies in darkness.” Based on Lockheed’s treatment of its own software, it would appear that it’s not so much darkness as software going dark that has the power to kill democracy.