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

Notable Replies

  1., that headline... NYT says

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

    Might as well say

    "New York Times: It Is 2015 and Computers are fucking magic."

  2. If it were open source, then the naughty programmers would have had to obfuscate the trickery, so that inspectors wouldn't be able to find it by browsing the code.

  3. I don't think the EPA hires code monkeys, they are more into Yes men.

  4. I'm friends with one of the Yes Men. I'll suggest this to him. He could have some fun with it.

  5. jerwin says:

    The ideal situation would be to be able to check for the presence of a tube connected to the exhaust pipe, physically. They could have added a little switch or pressure sensor, but that may be visible to testers, and it would clearly raise some red flags. Perhaps they can check for a back pressure increase that may be associated with a tube on the exhaust? Maybe a sensor further back under the car, near where the exhaust hanger is could check for any strain caused by the pressure of a hose connected to the exhaust pipe? They could say it’s just a sensor to check the integrity of the exhaust hanger system, or something?

    And, if we really want to get creepy, how about this: almost all of these cars have an interior microphone, for Bluetooth phone calls and voice command stuff. Hypothetically, the car could turn the mic on and listen for key words only likely to be spoken by people conducting emissions tests: nitrous oxides, chemiluminescence detector, non-dispersive infrared spectrometer, and all the associated acronyms. The sort of emissions-geek crap that no normal human owner is likely to ever utter.

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