Friday, May 10, 2013

ITAR Craziness in the News

First it was the almost good news story on NASA's NTRS service coming back online
The website of the NASA Technical Reports Server (NTRS), a massive collection of aerospace-related records, was disabled in March due to congressional concerns that it had inadvertently disclosed export-controlled information. (“NASA Technical Reports Database Goes Dark,” Secrecy News, March 21; “Database Is Shut Down by NASA for a Review,” New York Times, March 22.)

The site is now active again, though hundreds of thousands of previously released documents have been withheld pending review.

Rather than conducting a focused search for actual export-controlled information and then removing it, as would have seemed appropriate, NASA blocked access to the entire collection. The agency acted under pressure from Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) of the House Appropriations Committee while it assessed the situation.
NTRS Back Online
The FAS also got some emails describing the process for NASA to return the rest of the reports to public availability. Getting that error message back in March that the server was down was a pretty big shock. It's a very commonly used resource in the Aeronautical / Astronautical Engineering community. I hope they are able to get things restored rapidly!

As if the NTRS fiasco wasn't enough export control weirdness for your week we also got a bit of a spectacle courtesy of Defense Distributed and the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls.
the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (“DDTC”) told Defense Distributed to take down the plans that it had posted for producing a crappy plastic handgun using an expensive 3-D printer. You can read the letter by clicking this link.
But leaving aside whether or not these plans are controlled technical data that cannot be put on the Internet without a DDTC license, this whole brouhaha seems to be a waste of time by DDTC. Real guns that won’t blow up in your hand, can fire multiple shots before falling apart, and which can be much more cheaply manufactured are readily available outside the United States, so the danger posed by exporting these plans is, well, non-existent. Foreign militaries aren’t very likely to abandon their AK47s now that they can print their own plastic handguns. Worse yet, the plans had apparently been downloaded more than a 100,000 times before the Feds dropped the ban hammer. There is no way that DDTC can now stuff all that toothpaste back in the tube.
DDTC Slams Stable Door After The Horses Have Bolted

The striking similarity in both cases is that the information in question had already been made widely available to the public, and the public had availed itself to it. In the NTRS case those reports had been available for years, and are widely used in engineering education and referenced in textbooks. The Defcad files were only available for a matter of weeks (the latest files were only added to the archive in the past few days), but had already been downloaded more than 100k times and were hosted on servers in New Zealand. Of course for a political animal like Cody Wilson getting a take-down order from the State Dept. is exactly the sort of thing he wants