Volkswagen Debacle: It's High Time for Free Software, Reverse Engineering

The revelations of Volkswagen cheating on anti-pollution tests remind us once more of the importance of Free Software, but also of the right for all to reverse engineering.

Car maker Volkswagen equipped certain car models sold in the United States with onboard software capable of cheating during anti-pollution testing. This new scandal shows the dangers of the lack of transparency, control and trust that comes with these “black boxes”.

Today, we live in a world where software is all over and where, more and more, algorithms define the law, interpret it and, last but not least, make it possible to shamelessly circumvent it.

Volkswagen proves that a large European corporation is capable of setting up elaborate fraud at an industrial scale and make a mockery of existing controls. As a reminder, in 2006, Sony pirated and compromised its customers' computers' security on a large scale through a rootkit bundled with audio CDs. It also bears reminding that on the Internet, large service providers (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple & Microsoft) spied on their users, without giving it a second thought, in an admittedly legal but clearly non-democratic framework.

What is at stake with the Volkswagen fraud is crucial. It is a matter of public health. This case is a glaring example of the considerable consequences of locking down and hiding the code which now drives many objects of our everyday lives. Never has the saying “control computers or be controlled by them” been as relevant as it is now.

Publishing the source code under a free license is essential to regaining public trust in manufacturers and the credibility of these inspections, beyond the car industry. But while necessary, this condition is not sufficient.

Indeed, in the case of Vokswagen, the availability of the embedded software's source code would not have sufficed. One must also ensure the software running on the car corresponds to this source code. To do this, reverse engineering of the installed software must be allowed. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) notes that reverse engineering is highly restricted in the USA [fr] by copyright rules (see the EFF article).

In a similar madness, tractor manufacturers now want to forbid farmers from repairing their own tractors.

Let us hope this scandal, brought to light in the USA, will rekindle a genuine public debate in which Europe must take its part, in particular relative to the possible revision of the European directive on copyright.