Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Spring Fund Drive: Keep CounterPunch Afloat
CounterPunch is a lifeboat of sanity in today’s turbulent political seas. Please make a tax-deductible donation and help us continue to fight Trump and his enablers on both sides of the aisle. Every dollar counts!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Volkswagen and the Quandary of Hidden Code

Though the media may be inclined to shine a spotlight on Volkswagen and its systemic rigging of emission control systems the public record shows that the practice of secretly modifying technology to enable questionable features is fairly widespread. For example, accessing computers using hidden code is a mainstay of NSA surveillance and they’ve gotten so adept at it that plans have been drawn up to industrialize attacks against millions of machines at a time. And while federal officials and tech CEOs quibble over cryptographic back doors there are spies currently relying on hidden code to break into networks all over the planet.

Documents provided by Edward Snowden reveal classified intelligence operations like BULLRUN and the SIGINT Enabling project, industry-wide campaigns to undermine cyber security by inserting stealthy technical modifications.

Make no mistake, this is evidence that the tech industry hopes you’ll forget. They’re focused on maintaining earnings after being caught collaborating with security services. The execs would much rather frame themselves as our protectors rather than willing participants who subvert their products and conspire with authorities on a first-name basis. Hence there is a degree of theater to the debate playing itself out in the public arena. The media is, to an extent, complicit.

Tech CEOs may complain vocally to President Xi about the prospect of installing back doors in products destined for markets in China. But, honestly, can you blame Chinese leaders for wanting the same sort of benefits that tech companies have already provided to U.S. spies? The sheer size of the market in China may lead the Silicon Valley crowd to comply. Just ask Boeing, it recently signed a deal to sell 300 aircraft to China for $38 billion.

Rest assured that there is a way forward. Hidden code thrives in the dark. This means that transparency and sunlight are appropriate remedies. Specifically, commercial products should be open source so that anyone can inspect them. As Columbia law professor Eben Moglen astutely observed, “If Volkswagen knew that every customer who buys a vehicle would have a right to read the source code of all the software in the vehicle, they would never even consider the cheat, because the certainty of getting caught would terrify them.”

In addition government subversion programs that implement hidden code need to be outlawed. The tech industry —itself a direct descendent of the defense sector— cannot, or rather will not, fight this battle on its own. The covert arm of U.S. intelligence has a long and storied history of toppling foreign regimes. It doesn’t matter how much ruckus Apple’s CEO makes in public. Do you honestly think Tim Cook could resist this kind of pressure any more than Costas Tsalikidis or Salvador Allende? There are subtle and inexorable currents running under the surface of the body politic. They’re driven by forces much bigger than any one company. Look further and pathways to the American Deep State will emerge.

But even these measures aren’t sufficient. Secret components can masquerade as accidental bugs which are plausibly deniable. For example, it’s been documented that Microsoft had a clandestine arrangement to provide the NSA with early information on zero-day vulnerabilities. Therefore the executives of Silicon Valley need to be held liable for shoddy implementation so that companies have incentives to treat bugs as the catastrophes that they are rather than as a negative externality. Formally verified code, mathematically proven to be free of defects, is an emerging reality.

There is no shortage of talent or resources to tackle this problem. The major impediment preventing engineers from making significant headway on eliminating hidden code is skewed priorities both on behalf of corporate leadership and the political class which serves them. Hidden code represents control, it represents power. We need to take that power back.

More articles by:

Bill Blunden is a journalist whose current areas of inquiry include information security, anti-forensics, and institutional analysis. He is the author of several books, including “The Rootkit Arsenal” andBehold a Pale Farce: Cyberwar, Threat Inflation, and the Malware-Industrial Complex.” Bill is the lead investigator at Below Gotham Labs and a member of the California State University Employees Union, Chapter 305.

May 24, 2018
Gary Leupp
Art of the Dealbreaker: Trump’s Cancellation of the Summit with Kim
Jeff Warner – Victor Rothman
Why the Emerging Apartheid State in Israel-Palestine is Not Sustainable
Kenn Orphan
Life, the Sea and Big Oil
James Luchte
Europe Stares Into the Abyss, Confronting the American Occupant in the Room
Richard Hardigan
Palestinians’ Great March of Return: What You Need to Know
Howard Lisnoff
So Far: Fascism Lite
Matthew Vernon Whalan
Norman Finkelstein on Bernie Sanders, Gaza, and the Mainstream Treatment
Daniel Warner
J’accuse All Baby Boomers
Alfred W. McCoy
Beyond Golden Shower Diplomacy
Jonah Raskin
Rachel Kushner, Foe of Prisons, and Her New Novel, “The Mars Room”
George Wuerthner
Myths About Wildfires, Logging and Forests
Binoy Kampmark
Tom Wolfe the Parajournalist
Dean Baker
The Marx Ratio: Not Clear Karl Would be Happy
May 23, 2018
Nick Pemberton
Maduro’s Win: A Bright Spot in Dark Times
Ben Debney
A Faustian Bargain with the Climate Crisis
Deepak Tripathi
A Bloody Hot Summer in Gaza: Parallels With Sharpeville, Soweto and Jallianwala Bagh
Josh White
Strange Recollections of Old Labour
Farhang Jahanpour
Pompeo’s Outrageous Speech on Iran
CJ Hopkins
The Simulation of Democracy
Lawrence Davidson
In Our Age of State Crimes
Dave Lindorff
The Trump White House is a Chaotic Clown Car Filled with Bozos Who Think They’re Brilliant
Russell Mokhiber
The Corporate Domination of West Virginia
Ty Salandy
The British Royal Wedding, Empire and Colonialism
Laura Flanders
Life or Death to the FCC?
Gary Leupp
Dawn of an Era of Mutual Indignation?
Katalina Khoury
The Notion of Patriarchal White Supremacy Vs. Womanhood
Nicole Rosmarino
The Grassroots Environmental Activist of the Year: Christine Canaly
Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin
“Michael Inside:” The Prison System in Ireland 
May 22, 2018
Stanley L. Cohen
Broken Dreams and Lost Lives: Israel, Gaza and the Hamas Card
Kathy Kelly
Scourging Yemen
Andrew Levine
November’s “Revolution” Will Not Be Televised
Ted Rall
#MeToo is a Cultural Workaround to a Legal Failure
Gary Leupp
Question for Discussion: Is Russia an Adversary Nation?
Binoy Kampmark
Unsettling the Summits: John Bolton’s Libya Solution
Doug Johnson
As Andrea Horwath Surges, Undecided Voters Threaten to Upend Doug Ford’s Hopes in Canada’s Most Populated Province
Kenneth Surin
Malaysia’s Surprising Election Results
Dana Cook
Canada’s ‘Superwoman’: Margot Kidder
Dean Baker
The Trade Deficit With China: Up Sharply, for Those Who Care
John Feffer
Playing Trump for Peace How the Korean Peninsula Could Become a Bright Spot in a World Gone Mad
Peter Gelderloos
Decades in Prison for Protesting Trump?
Thomas Knapp
Yes, Virginia, There is a Deep State
Andrew Stewart
What the Providence Teachers’ Union Needs for a Win
Jimmy Centeno
Mexico’s First Presidential Debate: All against One
May 21, 2018
Ron Jacobs
Gina Haspell: She’s Certainly Qualified for the Job
Uri Avnery
The Day of Shame
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail