07.03.21

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The Unexplored or Scarcely Explored Ethical Problems With Modern Cars Containing Proprietary Software That Drivers Cannot Remove/Replace

Posted in Free/Libre Software at 10:21 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

The case for Free software in cars (or the case against computerised vehicles, in general)

Cars
The hidden cost of shallow ‘novelty’; Who controls the car other than the software that runs in it?

Summary: Proprietary software which is being remotely updated by third parties (untrusted companies, sometimes even malicious and unauthorised actors) can pose a threat to both drivers and passengers

THE folks lurking in our IRC channels have likely seen this recurring theme; cars and the things that nowadays go into new cars concern us. It’s not limited to what insurance companies are doing; drivers aren’t the sole targets of surveillance and remote control, either. Passengers in cars too are affected.

There are several dimensions to this problem, or several separable aspects. Spying in cars is a big and largely unexplored issue; but it’s not the only one. Many of today’s cars can be remotely controlled; if not by design, then by cracking, which in turn replaces the software that runs inside a car. The schemes by which this is done are kept under the veil of “national security” (see for example Vault 7 and Vault 8, especially the codenames/operations that relate to software in cars).

“Cars can be easily isolated; many assassinations have historically been carried out in remote places without eyewitnesses.”The digitalisation rather than mechanisation (in the physical sense) of car components and their controllers — including windows, brakes, blinkers etc. — should be a cause for concern if it’s all proprietary software. A few years ago, following the wave of trucks running over crowds in terror attacks, suggestions were made for remote controls (or software-based controls) over the brakes; even without remote controls, or direct controls, the ability to remotely modify the software on a vehicle (such as a truck) should alarm us. Forcing the brakes to kick in, or conversely preventing them from working, is route towards remote assassination with no black box to enable forensics. It’s even worse if the pedal for throttling can be tinkered remotely. Use your imagination to picture scenarios where forcing brakes to kick in (or not kick in) and forcing down the gas pedal (or the opposite) would enable assassination, given the right timing. Steering being tinkered would be a lot more difficult to do covertly because of the way steering wheels are physically attached to actual wheels*. But no need to steer people off the road to kill them if speed can be controlled.

Of course assassination is one of many aspects; it’s the most extreme (edge) scenario, but it’s worth entertaining (nonetheless!) because assassination by governments isn’t just a theoretical thing, not even in supposedly ‘civilised’ societies. Even journalists are being targeted for their work and opinions. Cars can be easily isolated; many assassinations have historically been carried out in remote places without eyewitnesses.

Regarding privacy, today’s cars ‘emit’ an enormous amount of data about drivers and passengers. As Ryan put it moments ago in IRC: “With Google selling data to third parties, maybe you even get spied on by insurance companies anyway for using Waze or Google Maps and just don’t even consider it. They do a lot of nasty things in the background. They’re not developing these apps for free.”

“In the future, hypothetically at least, it’s also possible that cars will be universally chipped for satellite communications that track cars’ movement (even well outside the reach of plate readers) and charge people in the name of “carbon footprint” or “congestion reduction”, in effect subjecting everybody to eternal surveillance (as long as there’s satellite signal), no matter if they carry a ‘smart’ phone inside the car or have a computer inside the car.”Speaking for myself, double standards or hypocrisy would probably not be an issue; I used to drive, my licence is still up to date (entirely valid), but I’ve not owned a car in years. Given the types of cars they sell nowadays, I wouldn’t be tempted to buy one either.

This post is part of the series, which we’ll resume some other day. Software freedom matters a lot more when your actual movements are controlled by software, even at a high and potentially lethal velocity. There have long been discussions about pacemakers that run proprietary software (and can in theory be remotely modified to assassinate a person), but not many people have a pacemaker inside them compared to the number of people who drive so-called ‘smart’ cars (that proportion is quickly growing because people no longer get to reject those gimmicks; they come with the car whether you want them or not). In the future, hypothetically at least, it’s also possible that cars will be universally chipped for satellite communications that track cars’ movement (even well outside the reach of plate readers) and charge people in the name of “carbon footprint” or “congestion reduction”, in effect subjecting everybody to eternal surveillance (as long as there’s satellite signal), no matter if they carry a ‘smart’ phone inside the car or have a computer inside the car. With the relentless promotion of “autonomous vehicles” or ‘self-driving’ (misnomer) vehicles — a trend that superficial media hype is suddenly rooting for in recent years — we risk having our locations being used to discriminate or even completely suspend the cars depending on where we go (or denying navigation towards particular places, e.g. to discourage attendance in a nonviolent protest).
____
* Ryan later corrected me, asserting that: “Many new car designs have full power steering controlled by motors that are controlled by software. There’s no longer any link at all between the steering wheel and the steering system. If the system goes out, you have no control over the car at all. It’s incredibly dangerous. There’s also no physical link between the accelerator and the throttle since about 2004 or 2005 on many cars. It’s just a sensor. A car with little/no computer controlled components can just end up being repaired indefinitely and kept in service. That’s not what they want. They want to sell more new cars. The Waukegan Police even still use Impalas that are as old as mine (2000-2004 style) and they still work. They hand them to ancillary tasks, like probation going out to check on people. The actual cops drive stuff that’s newer.”

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