Dirty Software Tricks

VW Illustrates the Dark Capabilities of Code

After suspicions were initially raised by US regulators, Volkswagen announced that up to 11 million of its diesel cars were intentionally programmed to cheat during pollution emission tests. The cars were coded to detect when they were being tested so they could switch on special controls that mask the true levels of pollutant output emitted during real-world driving.

The code in question was not a strange software bug, but rather an intentional attempt to trick its way to a passing grade. Several VW diesel models and one Audi model built between 2009 and 2015 are affected by this software. Officials in France, Germany, South Korean and the US are now investigating the automaker’s products in their countries.

Like so many other products these days, cars are full of lines of computer code that are invisible to consumers and regulators who simply have to trust all’s well. But trust is a fragile currency.

The potential monetary damages and criminal charges against VW are still being determined by government agencies, but the damage to its reputation could take years to repair. In brand consultancy Interbrand’s 2014 top-100 ranking, VW’s brand value was ranked 31st in the world, just after Facebook and right above Kellogg’s. The company had a lot on the line.

A central part of creating goodwill is building trust over a long period of time, yet trust can be lost through one high-profile incident. The story of VW’s efforts to alter test results are making headlines in most major news outlets and it’s likely to leave a long-term mark on the company’s reputation. It also highlights the mysterious world of embedded software. Who really knows what’s going on in the code that comes with products?

Back in February we wrote about Lenovo’s Superfish problems (see A Fish Tale). Superfish is a third-party advertising app that exposes users to outside vulnerabilities. Lenovo sold laptops with the Superfish app pre-installed. When a security firm discovered Superfish on Lenovo products, the company offered an apology and a fix. The ramifications were limited, but current customers will remember.

In the era of the Internet of things, when even mundane products such as lightbulbs and pans have embedded code and connect to the cloud, consumers could grow increasingly suspicious of software. There has been a series of high-profile computer and identity hacks during the past few years, but VW’s cars weren’t hacked by outsiders, rather by the company itself. VW offers up a lesson of the importance of coding cleanly.

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