Yes, you can hack your car!

29 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

For science! US government says it’s OK to hack your car, tablet or smart TV.

The Library of Congress issued a set of new exemptions on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which will allow people to jailbreak any tablet or smart TV.

Remember when vehicle manufacturers like General Motors and John Deere tried to claim that even when you own a car, you only license the software inside of it?* This counterintuitive assertion was part of a massive debate over whether individuals should be allowed to tinker with car software. The ruling reined in the controversial 1201 provision of the DMCA, which prohibits the circumvention of Digital Rights Management technologies — no matter what your intention for circumventing the barrier is. In a final rule published in the Federal Register on Oct. 28, the Librarian of Congress has decided that it’s not only OK for us to unlock more of our computing devices, enabling them to run on any wireless carrier.

Basically, folks can now legally rip DVDs to make fair-use remixes, play out-of-support video games, jailbreak their mobile devices, and tinker with in-car software. This comes after the Alliance of Automakers — a group that includes BMW, General Motors, Toyota and others — objected to such a move earlier this year. “Many of the scores of electronic control systems embodied in today’s motor vehicles are carefully calibrated to satisfy federal or state regulatory requirements with respect to vehicle safety, emissions control and fuel economy,” the group wrote, adding that messing with a car’s software could cause it to fail those standards.

Volkswagen’s emissions testing fraud—which was revealed in September and will take an estimated $7 billion to fix—used software tricks to game mandatory pollution checks. The provision is the anti-circumvention part of the law that had, in the past, made it illegal to ‘unlock’ your smartphone from its carrier and helped corporations protect copyrighted material. For the uninitiated, jailbreaking refers to using software or technical expertise to skirt restrictions on content or software that a manufacturer has placed in a device.

Tinkering advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation are celebrating but note that it shouldn’t have taken such a large incident to motivate the change. “The VW smog tests and a long run of security vulnerabilities have shown researchers and drivers need the exemptions now,” EFF attorney Kit Walsh told Ars Technica. It also made it legal to rip content from DVDs and Blu-rays for the purpose of fair use remixes and preserve video games after publishers have abandoned them. Legal protection of car software was meant to safeguard companies’ intellectual property and preserve code integrity (so your handy cousin doesn’t accidentally mess up the digital signals behind, say, a car’s power steering). The surprisingly far-reaching exemptions were approved even as concerns that ‘jailbreaking’ would allow the installation of movie piracy software like Popcorn Time. Libraries, museums, and gamers, for example, can now modify a game so that it doesn’t have to check in with an authentication server to operate—welcome news in an era of online-only gaming.

As Kerry Maeve Sheehan pointed out in Slate on Tuesday, “petitioners must fight for the rights of consumers and researchers to use their technology legally, in a repetitive, seemingly endless, battle against objections that, no matter how often they are defeated, are resurrected again and again from their earthly slumber.” It sounds more like a zombie battle than a legislative process. The hacking of video game consoles is also prohibited, as the Copyright Office found that removing their limitations is correlated with the piracy of video games. Similarly, the Librarian broadened the rule for noncommercial remix videos, so people can legally use clips from DVDs, Blu-Ray discs, or downloading services. “We hope each of these exemptions enable more exciting fair uses that educate, entertain, improve the underlying technology, and keep us safer,” the EFF said. Fair use, as we’ve mentioned before, allows people to use copyrighted material without permission or payment, for things such as (but not restricted to) criticism, commentary, and education. Also included is an exemption for teachers, allowing them to circumvent access controls on DVDs so they can, for example, put together clips from several copyrighted works for educational purposes.

But some believe the legislation takes things too far. “The exemptions are needed thanks to a fundamentally flawed law that forbids users from breaking DRM, even if the purpose is a clearly lawful fair use,” the EFF wrote in a blog post. Instead, the Register of Copyrights argues, users tinkering with their smart TVs could gain legitimate uses and increased functionality. “The Register also found that the prohibition on circumvention is adversely affecting legitimate non-infringing uses of smart TV firmware, and that the proposed alternatives to circumvention, such as connecting a laptop computer to the TV, are inadequate, because they would not allow installation of software on the smart TV to improve its functioning as a TV, such as facilitating more prominent subtitles,” the decision reads. “The Register also concluded that no evidence was submitted to illustrate opponents’ claim that ‘jailbreaking’ of smart TVs will make it easier to gain unauthorized access to copyrighted content, or that it would otherwise undermine smart TVs as a platform for the consumption of expressive works.” Perhaps the most futuristic-seeming outcome of this exemption is that car owners are now allowed to ‘hack’ their vehicles.

Exceptions expire every three years, and must be resubmitted by the public via what the EFF called “an elaborate rulemaking process.” Every dispensation—even those that have been previously granted—must be argued again. As a result, mechanics and Americans in their garages will be able to learn more about their vehicles, but not until next fall, when the portion of the final rule relating to cars goes into effect. Deere said that because their tractors are so fundamentally reliant on the software that is the company’s intellectual property, those who purchase the vehicles only have “an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.” GM had similarly argued that many people mistakenly “conflate ownership of a vehicle with ownership of the underlying computer software.” So it would apply to most internet video critics, who may derive some money from their videos but aren’t primarily focused on selling you something. And you still have to stick with screen-capping unless you “reasonably believe” that screen capping or another legal method (like pointing your smartphone at your screen) won’t give you the “required quality.” What’s “required quality”?

The rule doesn’t define “required quality,” but based on the arguments made by documentary filmmakers and vidders, the underlying idea is that below that level of quality, the point being made would be lost—as when zooming in on a detail pixelates it beyond recognition—or the documentary would be rejected by broadcasters or distributors as not meeting their standards. And you can’t use the exemption to break any other law or any regulations from the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Moreover, by passing the Unlocking Act—which amended section 1201 to allow unlocking of cellphones and other devices to be carried out by third parties “at the direction of” device owners—Congress indicated its view that extending the reach of an exemption to cover third-party actors requires a legislative amendment. The whole reason that Congress amended the law to allow third parties to unlock cellphones for people was because they were concerned that the way the law was worded prevented the untechnologically savvy from seeking help.

However, this exemption doesn’t just apply to cars—it applies to any consumer device (including voting machines) and medical devices that are implanted into patients. It’s means that the work is done under controlled conditions designed to avoid harm, the research’s purpose is to promote security, and the work doesn’t promote copyright infringement (publishing the whole code GM uses to run its cars, for example). That means car owners and security experts have roughly one real year to take advantage of this before they have to show positive results to extend it.

It also means that carmakers have a whole year of grace period to try to fix things without anyone knowing how badly they messed up in the first place. Or researchers interested in questions that aren’t about security—such as, I don’t know, whether a major car company was lying about how good its emissions were. 3D printing also got an exemption, but in yet another weird and frustrating way. If you want to bypass the controls on your printer that lock you into using the spools of plastic it came with, and see what happens if you try to print with a melted coat hanger, go for it.

And then the exemption states: [T]he exemption shall not extend to any computer program on a 3D printer that produces goods or materials for use in commerce the physical production of which is subject to legal or regulatory oversight or a related certification process, or where the circumvention is otherwise unlawful. So long as the “rights owner is remunerated, as appropriate, for the price of the mainstream copy of the work as made available to the general public through customary channels.” Helpful.

It’s nice that the exemption process exists, and getting a rule through at all is technically a “win,” but stop celebrating the wide-open spaces of copyright law. Photo credits: Computer Security by Perspecsys Photos/flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0;Blu-ray Player by Diego Correa/flickr/CC BY 2.0; kurhan/Shutterstock; 3D Printer at the Fab Lab by Keith Kissel/flickr/CC BY 2.0

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