Emissions cheating detection shines light on black box code

But boffins say better tools are needed to nab scofflaws


Researchers analyzing the emissions defeat devices found in automobiles made by the Volkswagen Group and Chrysler Fiat Automobiles have developed a way to test software for misbehavior, but they caution that lack of visibility into programming code could pose a challenge for regulators.

In 2015, the US Environmental Protection Agency charged Volkswagen AG and its subsidiaries, Audi AG and Volkswagen Group of America, with violating the Clean Air Act. The agency said the company had used a "defeat device" to alter diesel engine emissions on vehicles over the span of several years during regulatory testing.

Volkswagen has acknowledged that over 11 million vehicles worldwide carried its emissions cheating software.

The scandal claimed the company's CEO at the time, Martin Winterkorn, and is expected to cost the company at least $18.3 billion. In April, a US judge hit the company with a $2.8 billion criminal fine.

An academic paper published in 2015 projected that 59 people will die prematurely as a result of the unlawful automobile emissions.

In January, the EPA issued a similar notice of violation to Fiat Chrysler over 104,000 Dodge Ram 1500 and Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles (Model Years 2014-2016). According to USA Today, the US Department of Justice is preparing to sue the automaker if terms can be reached with regulators.

In a paper presented this week at the 38th IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy, "How They Did It: An Analysis of Emission Defeat Devices in Modern Automobiles," researchers from Ruhr University Bochum in Germany and University of California, San Diego analyzed the defeat devices used by Volkswagen and Chrysler Fiat with an eye toward developing reliable detection methods through static (source code) analysis.

"Electronic engine control has also made it easier to circumvent emissions testing by implementing a defeat device in software," the paper explains. "The black box nature of emissions testing makes it nearly impossible to discover such a software-based defeat device during a test, forcing regulators to rely on heavy fines to discourage cheating. Unfortunately, as the Volkswagen case illustrates, it can take many years to discover such a defeat device."

In affected Volkswagen Group vehicles, the Engine Control Unit (ECU) governs the operation of the engine. The ECUs in question relied on a signal referred to as the "acoustic condition" to trigger emissions cheating. Activating this signal, stored in the variable stNsCharCor, involves assessing various engine parameters, such as coolant temperature, oil temperature, fuel temperature, atmospheric pressure, and whether the engine has recently been started.

"The value stNsCharCor = 0 means that the ECU considers itself to be in normal driving mode, while stNsCharCor = 1 indicates testing (emmissions-compliant) mode," the paper explains.

The researchers developed software called CURVEDIFF that reliably detects ECU firmware images configured to cheat. But the technique is not foolproof because a carmaker could find ways to evade detection.

New and better tools needed

"Regulators and the research community will need to rethink how we make sure that vehicles, and other devices subject to regulatory oversight, are compliant," said Kirill Levchenko, assistant research scientist at University of California, San Diego, and co-author of the IEEE paper, in an email to The Register.

"This is something we are working on right now, but the bottom line is that we need to give regulators new tools to deal with complex software-controlled systems. What our work highlights is that defeat devices can be arbitrarily complex and that a single fixed test is simply not enough to ensure a vehicle is in compliance."

The paper also points out that passive techniques to cheat on emissions tests are not easily detected.

"For example, emission tests are comparably short, which opens up the possibility to simply stay in a compliant mode for as long as the average emission test is carried out and switch to a more harmful emissions policy afterwards," the paper says. "The Fiat defeat device we discussed earlier belongs to this category."

Levchenko said additional work needs to be done to enable regulators to catch deliberate attempts to deceive. "Making sure software works correctly is already hard, even in the best conditions," he said.

"If you now have the software developer trying to conceal some behavior and evade detection, it becomes much, much harder. We will need a new breed of techniques for this, because it's not something we are well-equipped to handle today." ®


Other stories you might like

  • Lonestar plans to put datacenters in the Moon's lava tubes
    How? Founder tells The Register 'Robots… lots of robots'

    Imagine a future where racks of computer servers hum quietly in darkness below the surface of the Moon.

    Here is where some of the most important data is stored, to be left untouched for as long as can be. The idea sounds like something from science-fiction, but one startup that recently emerged from stealth is trying to turn it into a reality. Lonestar Data Holdings has a unique mission unlike any other cloud provider: to build datacenters on the Moon backing up the world's data.

    "It's inconceivable to me that we are keeping our most precious assets, our knowledge and our data, on Earth, where we're setting off bombs and burning things," Christopher Stott, founder and CEO of Lonestar, told The Register. "We need to put our assets in place off our planet, where we can keep it safe."

    Continue reading
  • Conti: Russian-backed rulers of Costa Rican hacktocracy?
    Also, Chinese IT admin jailed for deleting database, and the NSA promises no more backdoors

    In brief The notorious Russian-aligned Conti ransomware gang has upped the ante in its attack against Costa Rica, threatening to overthrow the government if it doesn't pay a $20 million ransom. 

    Costa Rican president Rodrigo Chaves said that the country is effectively at war with the gang, who in April infiltrated the government's computer systems, gaining a foothold in 27 agencies at various government levels. The US State Department has offered a $15 million reward leading to the capture of Conti's leaders, who it said have made more than $150 million from 1,000+ victims.

    Conti claimed this week that it has insiders in the Costa Rican government, the AP reported, warning that "We are determined to overthrow the government by means of a cyber attack, we have already shown you all the strength and power, you have introduced an emergency." 

    Continue reading
  • China-linked Twisted Panda caught spying on Russian defense R&D
    Because Beijing isn't above covert ops to accomplish its five-year goals

    Chinese cyberspies targeted two Russian defense institutes and possibly another research facility in Belarus, according to Check Point Research.

    The new campaign, dubbed Twisted Panda, is part of a larger, state-sponsored espionage operation that has been ongoing for several months, if not nearly a year, according to the security shop.

    In a technical analysis, the researchers detail the various malicious stages and payloads of the campaign that used sanctions-related phishing emails to attack Russian entities, which are part of the state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec Corporation.

    Continue reading
  • FTC signals crackdown on ed-tech harvesting kid's data
    Trade watchdog, and President, reminds that COPPA can ban ya

    The US Federal Trade Commission on Thursday said it intends to take action against educational technology companies that unlawfully collect data from children using online educational services.

    In a policy statement, the agency said, "Children should not have to needlessly hand over their data and forfeit their privacy in order to do their schoolwork or participate in remote learning, especially given the wide and increasing adoption of ed tech tools."

    The agency says it will scrutinize educational service providers to ensure that they are meeting their legal obligations under COPPA, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

    Continue reading
  • Mysterious firm seeks to buy majority stake in Arm China
    Chinese joint venture's ousted CEO tries to hang on - who will get control?

    The saga surrounding Arm's joint venture in China just took another intriguing turn: a mysterious firm named Lotcap Group claims it has signed a letter of intent to buy a 51 percent stake in Arm China from existing investors in the country.

    In a Chinese-language press release posted Wednesday, Lotcap said it has formed a subsidiary, Lotcap Fund, to buy a majority stake in the joint venture. However, reporting by one newspaper suggested that the investment firm still needs the approval of one significant investor to gain 51 percent control of Arm China.

    The development comes a couple of weeks after Arm China said that its former CEO, Allen Wu, was refusing once again to step down from his position, despite the company's board voting in late April to replace Wu with two co-chief executives. SoftBank Group, which owns 49 percent of the Chinese venture, has been trying to unentangle Arm China from Wu as the Japanese tech investment giant plans for an initial public offering of the British parent company.

    Continue reading
  • SmartNICs power the cloud, are enterprise datacenters next?
    High pricing, lack of software make smartNICs a tough sell, despite offload potential

    SmartNICs have the potential to accelerate enterprise workloads, but don't expect to see them bring hyperscale-class efficiency to most datacenters anytime soon, ZK Research's Zeus Kerravala told The Register.

    SmartNICs are widely deployed in cloud and hyperscale datacenters as a means to offload input/output (I/O) intensive network, security, and storage operations from the CPU, freeing it up to run revenue generating tenant workloads. Some more advanced chips even offload the hypervisor to further separate the infrastructure management layer from the rest of the server.

    Despite relative success in the cloud and a flurry of innovation from the still-limited vendor SmartNIC ecosystem, including Mellanox (Nvidia), Intel, Marvell, and Xilinx (AMD), Kerravala argues that the use cases for enterprise datacenters are unlikely to resemble those of the major hyperscalers, at least in the near term.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022