The Toyota Recall and the Case for Open, Auditable Source Code

By Michael A. Spiegel | February 19, 2010

Public Safety is not a matter of Private Concern

In a recent article, Slate’s Farhad Manjoo attempts to play down fears of faulty software in car braking systems as a potential cause of traffic accidents. Citing numerous studies which conclude that “the overwhelming reason we get in crashes is driver error,” Manjoo reasons that “the less driving people do, the fewer people will die on the roads.”

While it may certainly be true that most crashes occur because of intoxication, distraction, or driver fatigue, and that computer controlled cars may decrease driver error, Manjoo doesn’t seem to see the obvious implication of his own assumptions – “opaque” and “inherently buggy” software which could endanger public safety should be subject to review.

If Toyota truly wanted to repair its public image and reputation for quality, it would make its source code available to anyone interested, not just a single government regulator. The public is far more likely to discover bugs and suggest improvements than a relatively small number of overworked and potentially inexperienced government employees. As a former patent examiner at the US Patent and Trademark Office, I have seen the problems that arise when the amount of information and technical expertise available to the government is far outstripped by that of the private firms seeking government approval. Currently, the USPTO is attempting to deal with this imbalance of information by publishing patent applications before they are granted and by considering various proposals to incorporate public feedback as a means to improve patent quality. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration should consider similar measures to allow the public to assist in its work.

Toyota should take their cue from another industry recently wracked by a loss of confidence in the integrity of their product – the voting machine industry. Looking back on the controversies that surrounded voting irregularities in the past few elections, it seems like the public cares a great deal about the integrity of the voting process. A seemingly endless amount of ink was spilled by the press and blogosphere expressing outrage over the various security flaws found in Diebold voting machines, especially after the CEO of Diebold Inc. wrote that he is “committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year.” The media attention surrounding this issue culminated in the HBO documentary “Hacking Democracy”, in which filmmakers Simon Ardizzone & Russell Michaels chronicled the efforts of activists who exposed and attempted to fight the proliferation of insecure voting machines.

Finally, in response to the controversy, Sequoia Voting Systems announced last October that their new voting machines would be based on publicly available source code and open architectures, noting that “[s]ecurity through obfuscation and secrecy is not security” and that “[f]ully disclosed source code is the path to true transparency and confidence in the voting process for all involved.”

I find it curious how proprietary software became a major concern to the media as well as various state legislatures when our democratic process was threatened, but when at least 37 lives have been lost due to malfunctioning Toyota vehicles, there is no similar outcry for greater transparency in the proprietary braking and accelerating software that is crucial to keeping people safe on the road.

Given the cost of its 8.5 million car recall and the potentially irrecoverable damage to its brand, Toyota should seriously reconsider the value of maintaining a business based on trade secrets and realize that ensuring public safety should not be purely a matter of private concern.

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