TECH
09/30/2015 12:00 pm ET Updated Jan 03, 2017

Volkswagen Scandal Proves It's Time To Stop Being Passive About Our Tech

Most of us have no idea how our smart cars and gadgets work. And that needs to change.
Keith New

Volkswagen admitted this month that millions of its diesel-powered cars had sidestepped environmental rules by using software that could detect emissions tests. In doing so, the world's biggest automaker hasn't just torpedoed public trust in so-called "clean diesel" or corporate efforts to save the planet. It also may have allowed its cars to emit as much as 40 times the legal level of pollutants. 

The scandal has drawn more attention to what critics of secret code have been saying for years: that the systems running our cars, homes and gadgets have become extremely closed off to us. Most of us don't know how they work, or if they're doing exactly what their manufacturers say they're supposed to do. It's also becoming clear that we need better investigators and procedures in place to ensure that these high-tech products work as advertised. 

The Environmental Protection Agency does deserve some credit for investigating and taking an enforcement action against Volkswagen after an engineer at West Virginia University's Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions called attention to the company's diesel-powered vehicles in May 2014. 

In a letter to the U.S. Copyright Office this summer, however, the EPA opposed exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that could have allowed consumers and mechanics to tinker with the software in their vehicles. Such exemptions might have brought Volkswagen's ruse to light sooner or prevented it from ever happening, points out Donald Robinson at the Free Software Foundation

"[I]f users and researchers had the right to access the software on their cars, they might have discovered this fraud years ago," writes Robinson. 

The EPA was worried that regular people would use this access to -- wait for it -- cheat on emissions tests. And the agency cited this concern when it argued in favor of keeping vehicle software closed off.  

We can't be conscious consumers or responsible citizens if the transportation choices we make don't work the way their makers assured us they would. While many of us aren't going to go through the lines of code in our cars, maybe we or our agents should at least have the right to do so.

We're now living in an era of cheating software, where many of the technologies that we use and depend upon can be engineered to quietly avoid codes, standards, regulations or laws in ways that other mechanical objects cannot, writes Zeynep Tufekci in an op-ed for The New York Times. Tufekci poses a fair challenge to us: Why is the software used in casino slot machines more trustworthy and tightly regulated than the code in our houses and cars?

If we don't increase the transparency of our "smart objects" and the systems that run them, the price of the Internet of Things, including connected cars, won't just be higher security and privacy risks. It could be "a vague dread of a malicious world," writes Marcelo Rinesi, assistant director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology: 

Just as any user feels their computer to be a fairly unpredictable device full of programs they’ve never installed doing unknown things to which they’ve never agreed to benefit companies they’ve never heard of, inefficiently at best and actively malignant at worst (but how would you now?), cars, street lights, and even buildings will behave in the same vaguely suspicious way. Is your self-driving car deliberately slowing down to give priority to the higher-priced models? Is your green A/C really less efficient with a thermostat from a different company, or it’s just not trying as hard? And your tv is supposed to only use its camera to follow your gestural commands, but it’s a bit suspicious how it always offers Disney downloads when your children are sitting in front of it.

None of those things are likely to be legal, but they are going to be profitable, and, with objects working actively to hide them from the government, not to mention from you, they’ll be hard to catch. 

Unless we improve our systems of independent, third-party industry and government auditors to analyze the software in question, consumers won't know about issues until there's an accident, death or error. The Federal Trade Commission's new Office of Technology Research and Investigation looks like a good start, if it can attract more talented technologists to public service

That current automobiles have become computers with wheels isn't news to anyone who has opened a hood recently, of course, but the degree to which that transition has made the vehicles opaque to us is both a marvel of modern engineering and reminder of how divorced we can become from the reality of what makes such technologies actually work.

If we're going to trust them with the lives of our families, friends and communities, that's a problem worth addressing. This isn't just an issue at home: Members of our armed services, confronted with balky technology on the battlefield, say that "if you can't hack it, don't pack it."

Government agencies must figure out how to elevate the public interest value of making "smart objects" transparent to their owners over the copyright interests of the corporations that manufacture them, lest we continue to fall victim to a Volkswagen-sized scandal every few years. If we don't shift the balance, the fundamental idea of "ownership" is under threat.

CONVERSATIONS