US says it's ok to hack cars and medical devices (sometimes)

Researchers will be able to look for flaws in software running on cars and medical devices without fearing legal action

DMCA exemption allows car hacking

Cars drive along San Francisco's Market Street on Oct. 28, 2015.

Credit: Blair Hanley Frank

The U.S. Copyright Office has given security researchers reason to hope that they'll be able to search for flaws in car systems and medical devices without the threat of legal action.

On Tuesday, the Librarian of Congress, who makes final rulings on exemptions to copyright rules, granted several exceptions to Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which prohibits the circumvention of the technological methods that are used to protect copyright works. The U.S. Copyright Office is a department of the Library of Congress.

The exemptions allow for "good-faith security research" to be performed on computer programs that run on lawfully acquired cars, tractors and other motorized land vehicles; medical devices designed to be implanted in patients and their accompanying personal monitoring systems and other devices that are designed to be used by consumers, including voting machines.

The proposal for this exemption has been opposed without success by various companies and organizations from the auto and medical device industries.

However, it does come with a one year implementation delay, so researchers who do not wish to risk legal actions brought under the DMCA will have to wait until the exemption goes into force.

Section 1201 of the DMCA, which prohibits the circumvention of technical access controls, was supposed to protect against unlawful copying of copyrighted works, said Kit Walsh, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "But, as we’ve seen in the recent Volkswagen scandal -- where VW was caught manipulating smog tests -- it can be used instead to hide wrongdoing hidden in computer code."

"We are pleased that analysts will now be able to examine the software in the cars we drive without facing legal threats from car manufacturers, and that the Librarian has acted to promote competition in the vehicle aftermarket and protect the long tradition of vehicle owners tinkering with their cars and tractors," he said.

The EFF was one of the organizations that petitioned for this and other DMCA exemptions.

Unfortunately, there are other efforts from legislators to discourage car security research. The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade has recently published a draft for a bill that would make car hacking illegal.

In addition to the security research exemption, the Librarian also renewed a previous exemption that allows the jailbreaking of smartphones and extended it to other mobile devices like tablets and smartwatches.