Car owners can modify vehicle software

28 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Automakers just lost the battle to stop you from hacking your car.

Car owners and security experts can tinker with automobile software without incurring US copyright liability, according to newly issued guidelines that were opposed by the auto industry.Car hackers rejoice: today the Library of Congress approved copyright law exemptions that will allow you to modify the software on your car for purposes of security research, maintenance, or repair.A section in the country’s copyright law known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act prohibits unlocking of “access controls” (in simpler terms, breaking digital locks to dig around computer code) on various software. Every three years, the Library’s Copyright Office decides which computer programs should be exempt from that provision, and on Tuesday it issued a lengthy list of reinstated, new and expanded exemptions.

While you’ve always been allowed to tinker with your car’s engine or change the oil and rotate the tires, now you’ll be able to get under the digital hood. The exemptions were far-reaching, extending from movie and television files used in an educational context for criticism to installing third-party software — in other words jailbreaking — tablets and smart TVs.They will however only last for three years. Once the exemption is in place, tinkerers will have more freedom to alter their automobiles without fear of reprisal, at least due to copyright laws. (Copyright laws apply to software as well as books, music, and other more traditional forms of creative expression.) That could free up more researchers, particularly risk-averse researchers attached to universities, to explore the software that underpins the automotive industry and potentially discover flaws or intentional wrongdoing, such as the software Volkswagen used to subvert emissions tests. The exemption will allow owners of cars and agricultural equipment to access software in their vehicles for diagnosis, repair or modification — as long as the alterations don’t violate regular copyright or other laws and don’t meddle with controls of telematics and entertainment systems.

The DMCA was passed in 1998 to protect things like copyrighted software, usually by prohibiting the copying or modification of it, or at least the bypassing of encryption that protects it. It’s designed to let corporations protect copyrighted material, but it allows them to crackdown on circumventions even when they’re not infringing on those copyrights or trying to access or steal proprietary information. They said it was “unnecessary” because “vehicle owners have alternative options, such as manufacturer-authorized repair shops and tools.” They also claimed that unrestricted access to this software could present “serious public health, safety and environmental concerns” — an intended or unintended modification could disable the airbags or the anti-lock brakes, for instance. And a bit ironically, part of their argument was that greater access to software would allow owners to skirt vehicle emissions regulations — precisely what Volkswagen did. (Walsh argues that diagnosing these kinds of issues might have happened earlier, had the DMCA exemption existed.) The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation, too, had expressed concerns about the new freedom to tinker, so the vehicle software exemption won’t go into effect for a year to give the regulators time to prepare. This year the group got together and established a handful of now well-known exemptions — like the Congress-backed ability to unlock your smartphone from its carrier — and a slew of new ones covering a range of devices.

We never know what we’re going to get from it.” Since the EFF and iFixit first requested the exemptions last year, WIRED has reported numerous security vulnerabilities in major automobiles discovered by security researchers. The updated list of exemptions reinstates freedom to “unlock” cellphones, which became an explosive issue after the exemption was allowed to expire and prompted Congress to pass a whole separate law. Researchers this year also exposed the massive fraud perpetrated by Volkswagen, which sold cars with software that deliberately circumvented emissions testing.

The law, by the way, allowed people to unlock phones on behalf of the owner, which the Librarian of Congress appears to view as something that will require legislative consideration if it is to be applied to other kinds of software. You’ll also still be held accountable if your fooling around with the software violates laws or regulations, especially those from the DOT or the EPA. The group says that and other limitations in the ruling show that the DMCA overall needs to be rewritten — something that EFF and other advocacy groups have been pushing for a while.

Groups like the EPA fear that customers will use the exemption to do things like increase engine performance at the cost of higher vehicle emissions, but irony is that the lack of public access to vehicle software was (part of) what made it so easy for Volkswagen to conceal its recent emissions scandal in the first place. Without developer support, both customers and game historians have been unable to easily play or preserve a title with such protections in a museum or for academic study. Perhaps the most interesting new exemption allows for the tinkering of automotive software for the purpose of “good faith security research” and for “lawful modification.” The ruling comes after a concerted effort from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed for two exemptions that are now more relevant than ever in the wake of the Volkswagen emissions scandal.

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