Things I Read: Cheating software, VW and the Future of Oversight

VW scandal could just be the beginning

Computers allow people to cheat in ways that are new. Because the cheating is encapsulated in software, the malicious actions can happen at a far remove from the testing itself. Because the software is "smart" in ways that normal objects are not, the cheating can be subtler and harder to detect.


We've already had examples of smartphone manufacturers cheating on processor benchmark testing: detecting when they're being tested and artificially increasing their performance. We're going to see this in other industries.

The Internet of Things is coming. Many industries are moving to add computers to their devices, and that will bring with it new opportunities for manufacturers to cheat. Light bulbs could fool regulators into appearing more energy efficient than they are. Temperature sensors could fool buyers into believing that food has been stored at safer temperatures than it has been. Voting machines could appear to work perfectly -- except during the first Tuesday of November, when it undetectably switches a few percent of votes from one party's candidates to another's.



The price of the Internet of Things will be a vague dread of a malicious world

The intrinsic challenge to our legal framework is that technical standards have to be precisely defined in order to be fair, but this makes them easy to detect and defeat. They assume a mechanical universe, not one in which objects get their software updated with new lies every time regulatory bodies come up with a new test. And even if all software were always available, cheking it for unwanted behavior would be unfeasible — more often than not, programs fail because the very organizations that made them haven’t or couldn’t make sure it behaved as they intended.

So the fact is that our experience of the world will increasingly come to reflect our experience of our computers and of the internet itself (not surprisingly, as it’ll be infused with both). Just as any user feels their computer to be a fairly unpredictable device full of programs they’ve never installed doing unknown things to which they’ve never agreed to benefit companies they’ve never heard of, inefficiently at best and actively malignant at worst (but how would you now?), cars, street lights, and even buildings will behave in the same vaguely suspicious way. Is your self-driving car deliberately slowing down to give priority to the higher-priced models? Is your green A/C really less efficient with a thermostat from a different company, or it’s just not trying as hard? And your tv is supposed to only use its camera to follow your gestural commands, but it’s a bit suspicious how it always offers Disney downloads when your children are sitting in front of it.