Another Brilliant Notion

Before I get to today’s main topic, a little bit of housekeeping, loosely following Tuesday’s post.

I will be attending the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival again this year. There’s still time to make your own plans to attend. What better way is there to spend a weekend than listening to great music performed well? In addition to the music, there will be dancing; symposia on ragtime, it’s precursors, and successors; and tours of Sedalia.

And yes, there will be copies of TRTT for sale. I’m not currently planning on a formal signing–though I’m certainly open to the possibility–but I’ll be happy to sign your copy*. I recognize most of you have been resistant to the idea of distributing copies to friends and relatives, so how about an alternative plan? Get ’em for people you don’t know–the possibilities are endless:

  • Send one to Donald Trump. He won’t read it, but maybe dealing with thousands of copies will distract him from tweeting for a few minutes.
  • Slip one to the opposing pitcher before the next ballgame you go to. Who knows, it might distract him enough to give your team a chance.
  • Give them to Scott Pruitt. He needs something cheerful in his life right now. And if he gets enough copies, he can use them to build himself a privacy booth at least as good as the one he made with the sofa cushions when he was a kid.

I’ll be happy to sign any “Strangers and Enemies” copies too. And I’ll add a personal message of your choice!

* I’m still unsure how to sign ebooks. Suggestions welcome!

Admittedly, the weather in Missouri in June is a bit on the hot and muggy side, but for those of you east of the Rockies, it’ll be a nice change from the snow you’re still getting. And better June than September, right?

So I hope to see a few of you at the Liberty Center and around Sedalia between May 30 and June 2.

Commercial over, moving on.

By now many of you have probably heard that the amazingly ill-thought-out Amazon Key program is expanding. If you don’t want Amazon unlocking your house and putting your packages inside–and who would?–they’re now going to offer an alternative: they’ll unlock your car and put your package in the trunk.

Which is, at least by comparison with the original offering, not a bad idea.

Despite San Francisco’s well-publicized problem with smash-and-grab auto robberies, your chances of having your car broken into are probably no higher than of having your house robbed. Assuming, of course, that nobody is following Amazon delivery peons around their routes and texting car delivery locations to a confederate.

Anyway, the service will be offered in conjunction with GM and Volvo initially, and then expand to other makes later. Trunk delivery will also require a recent model with online connectivity, i.e. OnStar.

Which brings us to my major complaint about this iteration of Amazon Key: it’s a reminder that we don’t really own our cars anymore. Ownership should mean control, but a modern, connected car sacrifices control. The manufacturer–and potentially dealers, repair shops, police, and others–can unlock your car, disable features, and display advertisements at will.

Yes, I’m talking capability rather than practice, but policies can change. Once the hardware is in place to, for example, show ads on your navigation screen, you’re never more than one manufacturer-controlled software update from not being able to turn the ads off.

Or one bug–or hack–away from the car failing to recognize the remote relock signal.

That’s true whether you use Amazon Key or not, of course.

Eye on the Prize

As you might have expected, my ability to remain relentlessly cheery lasted about a week. Not that I’m going full-on depressing again, but today’s piece is a downer.

Remember last year’s Jeep security fiasco? The one where a couple of researchers found a way to use cellphones to take over any Cherokee and drive it remotely?

Alison Chaiken used that story as an example of how the automotive industry is heading in the wrong direction when it comes to security. Linux Weekly News has a good writeup of her presentation, but unfortunately, it’s “subscribers only”*. The slide deck is here, albeit without a lot of useful context.

* LWN does allow linking of subscribers only articles, but for economic reasons asks that such links not be made publicly-available. If you want to read this piece, drop me an e-mail and I’ll see what I can do.

The gist is that not only are automakers emphasizing “gosh-wow” features over security, but regulators are focusing on the wrong things. The result is that nobody is paying attention to serious questions of privacy and security.

For example, Ms. Chaiken notes that the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration requires that infotainment* systems that have a rear-view camera must boot within two seconds. That number was, she says, chosen arbitrarily and proved extremely difficult to attain. Allowing three seconds would have saved “countless hours and costs” that could have been used better elsewhere.

* Can we agree that, the word “infotainment” is at least as obnoxious as “phablet”? But that it’s equally well-embedded in the vernacular and unlikely to go away? If we can agree, I’ll spare you the five hundred word rant I trimmed from the first draft of this post.

More critically, where regulations are being made with an eye towards safety, regulators aren’t giving sufficient thought to privacy. Ms. Chaiken cites rules covering what data must be recorded by “black boxes” for analysis of accidents. The rules don’t prevent using the same information for other purposes, so consumers have been denied warranty coverage (and, I believe, insurance coverage) based on non-accident-related information captured by the black boxes in their cars.

In cases where regulations haven’t been made yet, manufacturers aren’t considering privacy either. The push in infotainment systems is to provide access to more and more different services. Some of those services will inevitably require user information–hell, some of them already do: Pandora, for example, needs to know who you are so it can offer your customized stations. Sooner or later, some apps will store un- or lightly-encrypted passwords, GPS presets and trip data, credit card numbers, and other NPI. What happens when your infotainment system is stolen? For that matter, what happens when you sell your car? As far as I can tell, none of the systems offer a way to securely wipe the storage, even in cases where they allow some form of “reset to defaults”.

Fun times ahead.

That said, as Ms. Chaiken points out, there are positive signs. Publication of the Jeep Cherokee issue and other automotive security failures are forcing manufacturers to design more secure systems. (Although it should be noted that the DMCA makes it risky for security researchers to study automotive electronics.)

The California Department of Transportation is currently writing rules to cover self-driving vehicles. There’s a window in which they can be encouraged to build in privacy and security coverage. Of course, this is Caltrans we’re talking about… Keep your fingers crossed–and get involved. This is a great opportunity to drop a note to your state representative.