The US Pentagon is set to make a major investment in open source software, if section 886 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 is passed. The section acknowledges the use of open source software, the release of source code into public repositories, and a competition to inspire work with open source that supports the mission of the Department of Defense.

Essentially, the bill notes that any unclassified, custom-developed software that is created starting 180 days after the section is passed must be managed as open source software. However, a waiver on this requirement can be given by the service acquisition executive.

As part of this section the Secretary of Defense will also require that the contractor who built any existing software release the source code and related data into a public repository that has been approved by the Department of Defense. And this will be “subject to a license through which the copyright holder provides the rights to use, study, reuse, modify, enhance, and distribute the software to anyone and for any purpose,” the section said.

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If the source code isn’t available, the Defense Advanced Research Program Agency will be tasked with finding way to reverse engineer the custom software itself so that the code can be released as open source.

In addition to the release of the source code, the Secretary of Defense will also try to negotiate open source licenses for existing custom-developed computer software with the contractors that developed it initially. This applies only to software developed with the use of Federal Funds, and doesn’t include commercial off-the-shelf software, the bill said, regardless of its form of delivery.

Finally, the the Secretary of Defense will also be working to develop a competition that will award a prize for developing new methods and programs for identifying and storing these custom Department of Defense software tools and their data, the bill said. An additional prize will be awarded for efforts in ” improving, repurposing, or reusing software to better support the Department of Defense mission.”

So far, the bill has passed both the House and the Senate, and is on its way to the president of the US for final approval.

With the recent Kaspersky Labs debacle, where American agencies were ordered to find and remove all traces of the Russian cybersecurity firm’s software from their systems, the conversation around the critical role of software in government has increased. The use of open source software could provide an added level of transparency and control into what’s being used in these government agencies.

The emphasis on open source could also help the US government more quickly advance its digital initiatives, being that the private sector tends to innovate faster than organizations in the public sector. Open source could also add flexibility, as the software can be tailored to fit the needs of individual agencies and optimized for their particular use cases.

The aggressive move towards open source software could also help the government potentially attract more developers. However, expertise around open source is in-demand and it may be difficult for the US government to compete for available talent.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. A section in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 would require all custom-developed software in the Pentagon to be managed as an open source initiative.
  2. The bill would also require that all source code be released into a public repository that is managed by the Department of Defense. If the code can’t be found, it will be reverse engineered.
  3. The move toward open source could increase the speed of innovation in the US government, improve transparency in its software initiatives, and help attract new tech talent.