Volkswagen, Proprietary Software and Getting Caught

Last week there was an interesting post by Xeni Jardin on Boing-Boing concerning the Volkswagen emissions scandal. Jardin cites a New York Times article by Jim Dywer called, “Volkswagen’s Diesel Fraud Makes Critic of Secret Code a Prophet” published earlier in the week.

This is the bit that caught immediately my attention at Boing-Boing:

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

That quote comes from a talk Columbia Law School professor Eben Moglen gave to the Scottish Society for Computers and Law about 5 years ago, “When Software is in Everything: Future Liability Nightmares Free Software Helps Avoid.” OK, so Moglen founded the Software Freedom Law Center an organization that provides “pro-bono legal services to developers of Free, Libre, and Open Source Software,” so there may be a little bias at play. But the point raised remains a good one.

Dywer quoted some of Moglen’s speech in his NYT article. This is Moglen’s statement about proprietary software taken from the transcript of his speech:

“… proprietary software is an unsafe building material. 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. We wouldn’t allow people to build black-box elevators, you know. They’ve got to be inspectable, and they have to be repairable by the people in whose buildings they are.”

Moglen reflects on the recent VW scandal in Dywer’s article:

“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.”

Well said and worth thinking about.


  1. David Collier-Brown

    I had missed that at the time, thanks for remembering Professor Moglen’s point.

    We’re having a similar problem with the (US) FCC, who have proposed a rule to keep anyone from changing a wi-fi router’s software, in hopes of avoiding bugs that can cause interference. Unfortunately, it’s the proprietary software that contains the bugs, and the open source replacements that contains the fix, so they’ve exacerbated the problem they were trying to fix.

    [“Amendment of Part 0, 1, 2, 15 and 18 of the Commission’s Rules regarding Authorization Of Radio frequency Equipment ” and “Request for the Allowance of Optional Electronic Labeling for Wireless Devices”, ET Docket No. 15-170 RM-11673 I’m part of an IETF team responding]

  2. Good idea Tim. But according to the New York Times the EPA did not conduct the tests, the automakers do. And then the companies submit the results. So even with open source code (ah, the spectre of intelluctual property and government regulations) it is not necessarily true that they would have been found out: NYT Sept 24: “In the United States, automakers conduct their own emissions tests and submit the results to the government. In Europe, automakers pick who conducts the tests and where they are done. And these two regulatory systems are considered the world’s gold standards.”