Your car now needs a different kind of firewall

FirewallGrowing up in my father’s auto repair business, I came to understand that a car’s firewall was that piece of the body that separated the engine compartment from the passengers.  Back in the day (as my teen son is wont to say despite sporting such a paltry number of days), this was pretty essential hardware as engine fires were not uncommon.  The advent of several safety systems as well as the demise of carburetors has made such fires comparatively rare.  But modern digital automotive systems now have different safety issues requiring a different sort of firewall.

Security experts from the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Washington have successfully hacked into a car’s onboard control system using a variety of attack vectors. In one case, they used a car’s cellular connection (similar to OnStar) to access the vehicle’s computer.  In another, they took control using an Android phone connected to the car’s Bluetooth interface.  In the third case, an MP3 music file, loaded into the car’s sound system, was infected with a Trojan that successfully loaded itself into the vehicle’s firmware.

Now in your average car, there is a limited amount the hacker can do once he gains access to the firmware.  He could futz with the fuel mix and mess up your gas mileage, or change all the presets on your radio.  While this is annoying, it’s not terribly dangerous.  It’s also not interesting enough to warrant the efforts of would-be hackers unless this is their thesis project.

However, many higher-end cars may be unlocked, started, or in the case of vehicles with a self-parking features, even driven away under computer control.

While this is a scary prospect, it mostly reflects car designers not yet realizing the impact of networking the vehicle control systems.  Cars will simply need to employ the same sorts of firewalls and security software used by other computer systems.  Which also means the same sort of constant updating to address more recent exploits and attack vectors will also be required.

Ironically, I left the automotive field to pursue a career in computers.  I know my life will have come full circle when the first family member calls because their car has a virus.

IBM’s Watson may be in Jeopardy with the law

Watson on Jeopardy
Watson's bookworm habits may be illegal

The supercomputer known as Watson made history this week when it soundly defeated Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. The television friendly avatar at the podium concealed the massive number crunching power housed in the space of 10 refrigerators as Watson handily claimed the $1 million Jeopardy challenge prize.

Wired Magazine reported the 80 teraflop system was programmed by 25 IBM scientists over the last four years. During that time, researchers scanned some 200 million pages of content — or the equivalent of about one million books — into the system, including books, movie scripts and entire encyclopedias. All of which opens up a potential can of worms with regard to US Copyright Law.

In 2004, Google announced its intention to scan, digitize and make searchable the collections of five of the largest libraries in the world. Publishers and authors immediately reacted with claims of copyright violations. After all, if the contents of the books were available online, people wouldn’t be as inclined to purchase the books, and Google was not offering to otherwise compensate content creators for using their work.  Not to mention that Google would be profiting from the content.

It’s highly unlikely IBM procured publishing rights to the millions of source works fed into Watson.  Further, the content was used for profit when it won the $1 million prize. Undoubtedly, Jennings and Rutter have read numerous books as well, and also used that information for profit. But what does it mean for a machine to read a book? It’s clear that a human can read a book without violating the copyright, but humans lack total recall. Computers are not so limited.  Watson could reproduce pages or entire works intact.

In the not terribly distant future, Watson, or similar artificially intelligent systems, will be connected to the Internet.  They are the logical successor to services such as Wolfram Alpha that will be able to answer questions rather than merely return search results. They will necessarily have access to a wealth of copyrighted content.

The only thing that’s clear is that our century old copyright laws are ill-prepared to deal with this future. On the plus side, Skynet will never become self-aware and launch the Terminators to wipe out humanity because it will be unable to afford all the content licenses required to get that smart.