By now we’ve all heard of the shameful way Volkswagen has cheated all of us in their manipulation of pollution test results. The software in its emission control system could detect when it was being tested, and change the car’s operations to produce better results. This was not an accident. It was not a mistake borne of ignorance. Officials at VW were warned by Bosch, the maker of the devices, and by their own engineers that misuse of the system would lead to false readings. Their cynical cheating is now bringing harm to their investors, who saw an immediate thirty percent drop in their share values; harm to their customers, who saw the value of their vehicles fall; harm to the rest of us by covert pollution.
How did Volkswagen use the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) to help them in this fraud? The DMCA is meant to protect “intellectual property” by making it illegal to circumvent the restrictions placed on it. If a company only wants you to be able to watch their movie, say, in certain parts of the world on approved devices, they put a lock on it and use the DMCA to force you to comply. In their ignorance, the lawmakers extended this protection to software, and VW used the DMCA to keep people from seeing what they were doing. If people had been able to analyze the code, this crime might not have happened. Requests from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Electronic Frontier Foundation to exempt this kind of software were rejected. Ironically, the DMCA also makes it impossible to examine the code of software used to circumvent the programming in cars’ computers. See my previous posts referencing the DMCA here, here, here and here.
How does closed, proprietary software make the situation worse? If the code in control systems in our cars, homes, offices, factories, nuclear power plants and voting machines is not open for inspection, then we’re left to blindly trust those who employ those systems. We simply have to trust that they will do the right thing and protect our interests. Volkswagen has shown that to be a misplaced trust. As Eben Moglen of the Software Freedom Law Center says, “Proprietary software is an unsafe building material.”
If this debacle forces lawmakers to reconsider making this software open for inspection, then maybe some good will come of it. If not, then there will continue to be abuses like this, only we should expect them to be better concealed.
edit: Here’s a thoughtful article by Bradley M. Kuhn of the Software Freedom Conservancy, discussing the issue as it affects Free Software, and how Free Software might have affected the situation.