In Volkswagen emissions fraud scandal, proprietary software is the real villain

“Proprietary software is an unsafe building material. You can’t inspect it.”

Columbia University law professor Eben Moglen made that observation 5 years ago. It's timely today, as the Volkswagen emissions fraud scandal--enabled by proprietary software--worsens.

Volkswagen admitted this week it altered proprietary software on 11 million VW diesel cars, so they'd pass emissions tests when they were actually belching more smog.

“The breadth of the Volkswagen scandal should not obscure the broader question of how vulnerable we are to software code that is out of sight and beyond oversight,” writes Jim Dwyer at the New York Times today.

Mr. Moglen, a lawyer, technologist and historian who founded the Software Freedom Law Center, has argued for decades that software ought to be transparent. That would best serve the public interest, he said in his 2010 speech.

“Software is in everything,” he said, citing airplanes, medical devices and cars, much of it proprietary and thus invisible. “We shouldn’t use it for purposes that could conceivably cause harm, like running personal computers, let alone should we use it for things like anti-lock brakes or throttle control in automobiles.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Moglen recalled the elevator in his hotel.

“Intelligent public policy, as we all have learned since the early 20th century, is to require elevators to be inspectable, and to require manufacturers of elevators to build them so they can be inspected,” he said. “If Volkswagen knew that every customer who buys a vehicle would have a right to read the source code of all the software in the vehicle, they would never even consider the cheat, because the certainty of getting caught would terrify them.”

Volkswagen’s Diesel Fraud Makes Critic of Secret Code a Prophet

A VW Golf VII car is pictured in a production line at the plant of German carmaker Volkswagen in Wolfsburg, Germany, 2013. REUTERS


A VW Golf VII car is pictured in a production line at the plant of German carmaker Volkswagen in Wolfsburg, Germany, 2013. REUTERS