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The U.S. Defense Department will not get direct access to Microsoft source code under a $927-million support contract signed earlier this week, those organizations said in an email Thursday. Stories in GeekWire and several other publications reported that the contract did give the Defense Department access to Microsoft source code.

The contract reads in part:

The core requirements are for the contractor to provide Microsoft consulting services that include software developers and product teams to leverage a variety of proprietary resources and source code, and Microsoft premier support services such as tools and knowledge bases, problem resolution assistance from product developers, and access to Microsoft source code when applicable to support Department of Defense’s mission.

GeekWire and other publications, including Ars Technica, understood that to mean that the Defense Department would gain direct access to the source code. But the Defense Department said in a statement Thursday: “The Department of Defense does not, and will not, have access to Microsoft’s proprietary source codes.”

Defense Department spokesperson Alana R. Johnson (Casanova) added in a separate email, “The contract is for Microsoft support services performed by Microsoft ‘blue Badge’ employees.  Those Microsoft employees would have access to the source codes, not DOD members.” Later still, she emailed, “It appears that the contract language was misinterpreted.”

Why does any of this matter? Because source code is the guts that make software do what it does, and Microsoft has always zealously guarded its source code. Allowing an outsider to view the source code isn’t necessarily a big deal, though it can reveal a lot about how a program works. But if “access” is understood to mean the ability to change the source code, that would be a huge departure from the norm and could even result in “forking” — divergent versions of the same software product that could produce market confusion, incompatibilities and support nightmares.

Microsoft has opened “transparency centers” in its headquarters city of Redmond, Wash., and in Brussels, and in September it announced a third such center in Beijing. The centers let organizations and especially governments test and analyze Microsoft software and view its source code, but they “ensure our products remain proprietary and protected,” the company has said.

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