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Volkswagen problems

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mwha ha ha

I’m sure that it hasn’t escaped your attention, but Volkswagen has been caught doing something underhand and sneaky.  Volkswagen is accused of implementing software code within a diesel car’s engine management computer to detect the presence of emissions sensing equipment, and modify the flow of fuel through the engine to attain lower emission ratings and therefore pass the emissions test. The effect of this is that Volkswagen had an unfair advantage over other diesel manufacturers, and at the same time the emissions of these cars are actually up to 40% more than under test conditions.

The fall out of this scandal has forced the Chief Executive -Martin Winterkorn- to resign, the share price to plummet and leaves Volkswagen with its reputation in tatters and facing a potential $18 Billion fine.

Artur Fischer  (Joint CEO of the Berlin Stock Exchange) – was interviewed on BBC Radio 4 and had the following to say about the scandal, and interestingly about software:

“But I really like your listeners to remember that software changes can be done by small groups of people and can be deployed in millions and the real question I have, from a distance is,  How about software quality assurance? How about compliance? How big was that problem inside the company? and for that to analyse you need to have a fresh start”

Overall I’d agree with Artur’s first point – that software changes can be made by small groups of people – however the rest of this statement left me feeling uncomfortable.  Artur’s first point about software group size could – if I were more cynical – be an attempt to create a narrative around this.  Something along the lines of “It was a few rogue programmers that released this code”, and the “Fresh Start” that he talks about could be an attempt to prevent too much scrutiny of the processes around software development.  Fresh Start was also a phrase used by the outgoing Markin Winterkorn.  I’m not sure what analysis you can do if you implement a fresh start – and it again cynically may look like an attempt to bury other systemic failures within the VW group.

It’s a fact of life that software is more and more prevalent in the things we buy and consume today, and with the future Internet of Things materialising around us, I think we need to be concious of the issues that can arise from software lurking in things that we may not traditionally associate with running software..

At OggCamp a few years ago I heard Karen Sandler talk about the pacemaker she has fitted, and the  issues that she struggled with around the problem of bugs in medical devices that are implanted into your body – like pacemakers and insulin pumps – how these can be hacked or manipulated, and how the code for these devices is unavailable.

We place a huge amount of trust in out cars – and underpinning this trust is code. How can we be sure that the code in my car won’t detect a test condition, and lower the fuel consumption? That could leave me without power while driving, and therefore potentially in danger.

So how do we mitigate the issue that software is going to be ever present in more and more things ?

Well for some devices like My Friend Cayla, or garage door openers security researchers have done the research to identify issues with those devices.  Some manufacturers may be able to issue patches to affected devices.  I’m less sure how a patch could be distributed to my car, or a pacemaker.  The EFF believe that the Volkswagen emission test issue could have been uncovered if there was access to the source code – I’m betting that Martin Winterkorn is probably wishing that their software was accessible through some mechanism.

 

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Title : Villain – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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license : Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

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