Engineer/Programmer? sentenced in VW emissions fraud case

“Volkswagen has admitted it used software to deceive regulators in the United States and Europe from 2006 to 2015.”

"Liang’s lawyer…urged [Judge] Cox to consider a sentence of house arrest, saying Liang was not a ‘mastermind’ of the emissions fraud. Liang ‘blindly executed a misguided loyalty to his employer…’

"Federal prosecutor … countered that Liang was a pivotal figure…

“A prison term ‘would send a powerful deterrent message to the rest of the industry’…”

I’m not sure, but it seems like Liang is one of the first to get sentenced here. There are eight VW executives, mostly above him, that have been charged, so it’s not like the programmer alone was getting scapegoated. He probably provided valuable testimony on the higher ups. I think further sentencing remains to occur.

In any event, probably good to say no if asked to code something that contributes to an illegal activity. Or at the least, make sure you at least have plausible deniability if you do so.

[Edit: last line, awkwardly written, should have been more clearly ironic/sarcastic, so as not to be taken as an actual suggestion. I’ve been angry about the use of “plausible deniability” tactic since I first came across the concept in a William Safire column about Reagan and the Contras.]

So, this is already true:

I wouldn’t agree with arresting him, but he should get some punishment, if he actually
knew, what the code was intended for.

This whole emission conspiracy is a joke, to be honest. Not saying, that I expect other
industries to be any better, but how they present themselves in the media, like: “this
is not a management failure”. Pfff

I think that’s exactly the goal of this sentence.

It’s interesting to consider the ramifications of ethics in computer science. Stuff like this, but also the more subjective problem of “echo chambers” created by various social media sites. I really hope we reach a point where we understand these, how they come about, how they affect society, and how we can improve them. The stuff we do affects real people, and I hope we start thinking about that the way that other fields and industries think about the effects they have. Other fields have regulations about responsibility: why not programming?

Also reminds me of this page from Squirrel Girl:

Basically, it talks about how software has killed people, and then compares it to how poor engineering caused a bridge to collapse in Canada. Now engineers in Canada all study ethics, take an oath, and wear a ring as a reminder that what they do can kill people. Should we have similar conversations about programming?

Umm, I don’t think this is a great takeaway. The whole point is that programmers have an active role in, and as this sentence proves, a responsibility for, the code they write. Plausible deniability isn’t enough.

Absolutely not!

A rigorous development process is there to relieve the programmer of all responsibility for the code they write.
The client takes responsibility for the acceptance of the design, and QA takes responsibility for the acceptance of faulty code.

Only when the programmer is wearing multiple hats, can he be accountable for his own code.

The sentence in this case disagrees with you.

“I was just doing what I was told” isn’t always the best defense when it comes to ethics.

I think in every European country, the employer is responsible for all actions
of his employees by default, unless they act on their own behalf (without permission) or the action is clearly illegal. So, you can’t shoot someone, because your boss told you to.

However, most actions of employees (e.g. writing code) aren’t illegal. Illegal is just the use of the

So, if the employee offers to write code, that can be used to screw with emission tests,
and the employer accepts it and gives the order to use it finally, responsibility is passed
to the employer.

That’s what I think.

And after all: prison is way too much for this one.

I can only hope this was sarcastic, but I fail to see the cleverly hidden joke.

In the world of ethics, I think you cannot delegate responsibility.


… how 65% of arbitrary males would kill an arbitrary person who they were just paired up with.
The client for which you code, may be an authority - that doesn’t mean you can delegate responsibility, as part of the process - you can refuse and/or quit.

Keep in mind that this diesel-date isn’t just about cheating regulations… degradated air-quality kills people in poor health, and shortens everybody’s life.

Okay, isn’t this getting a bit too far, Riven?

The initial question or concern was rather, whether a programmer who was unintentionally
involved in a crime, might get punished in the future, due to those sentences made to Liang,
who (apparently) was intentionally involved.

That’s how I understood it, however.

I disagree strongly with the precedent set in this case.

I’m a programmer. I write code to spec (that is, I do what I’m told) and they pay me, or I get fired. What they do with code I write is their problem.

As I understand it, code is classified as “speech” in Murca isn’t it? In which case hasn’t this chap been put in jail by the govt. for expressing a concept through speech? Because that’s rather what it looks like. It is the authority to deploy that code in a customer product that should be the focus of the criminal charges. That is, whoever authorised the concept of defeating the air pollution regs.

Cas :slight_smile:

If you know fully well that you are part of a sequence of actions of which the sole intent is to subvert the law (and/or harm people), then you cannot defend your actions as if you were just bringing a cog in a machine up to spec.

I did a double take, and I still don’t see that point raised by the OP - but it’s certainly an interesting thought.

I think it’s pretty clear that If I was hired by a company to write software, and it turned out the
company was planning to use the software to rob banks, I wouldn’t be able to claim immunity
because I was only following orders and collecting a salary.

I think you would have to differentiate between intended, careless and unintended involvement.

  • Intended: You definitely knew the purpose.
  • Careless: You see that this code can be used in a crime, but you never ask about its use case.
  • Unintended: You didn’t see a potential abuse.

Borders between them are blurry:

For example hacker tools which can be used in legal tasks of system
administration. Is it your responsibility to ask about the intended use case?
If yes, then a person who was unintentionally involved can be declared careless as well,
because there was an illegal use case, he did not saw.

And in another case, it might be obvious, that a tool can be used in illegal tasks only.
But the person who built it, didn’t even think about any use of the tool, almost as if
he was on drugs. This is careless, but everybody would like to make him responsible.

It’s complicated. And that’s why I’d prefer general responsibility of the (abstract) person
who gave the order. That’s why he gets more money anyway. :stuck_out_tongue:

As the engineer involved I would not be expected to have any say on the legality or morality otherwise of the code I was told to write. I’m sorry, but that really is what management are there for. We’re here to write the code that people ask us to write - not to tell managers that it’s immoral or illegal to try and defeat emissions tests. In my experience the discussion always goes exactly like this:

Manager: Make the thing do this stupid thing.
Engineer: No, the consequences of doing the stupid thing are…
Manager: Fired. Who else wants to get sacked for not doing what we’re paying them for?
Engineer#2: Ok

Cas :slight_smile:

You would have to assume there is more to this than we currently know.

There are probably emails along then lines of :

“manager : can you make this car perform better and fool the EPA test?” “Engineer : Sure, I can hard code it to detect when it’s in a test and make it emit less”

This would make the engineer complicit and guily

But if it was more like

“Manager : we would like to see what the performance is like if we run in a low emission setting. Can you write some code which will emulate this scenario”
"Employee : sure boss, low emission sounds good!

Then there is nothing to show the engineer is responsible.

With a large organisation like VW the message could have gotten lost but I suspect they have evidence that in this case it’s pretty clear who is guilty.

I am a firm believer you code to spec, but also a firm believer that if you are responsible for signing off the spec then you do the right due diligence

I don’t think this guy was just some code monkey in a cubicle. He’s worked there for 30 years. From the article in the OP:

[quote]Federal prosecutor Mark Chutkow countered that Liang was a “pivotal figure” in designing the systems used to make Volkswagen diesels appear to comply with U.S. pollution standards, when instead they could emit up to 40 times the allowed levels of smog-forming compounds in normal driving.

And after this case (and other like it in the future?), our engineer will know to get out of there.

Exactly. From this article (warning: annoying auto-play video):

[quote]Liang, a German citizen, helped to develop the so-called “clean diesel” engine for Volkswagen while working in Germany. According to court documents, he and his co-conspirators realized they could not design a diesel engine that would meet the stricter U.S. emissions standards. So they designed and implemented software to cheat the tests.

Certainly sets an interesting precedent. But then it does rather look like he wasn’t “just” an engineer/programmer as much of the noise around this story seems to imply - he had authority to sign off a design he knew to be committing a fraud which would rather change persepective on things.

(My usual perspective is that I’m a contract engineer - I literally do exactly what I’m told to do - and as my job involves killing whales and destroying the planet it’s just as well I’m a couple of degrees removed from moral and ethical responsibility)

Cas :slight_smile:

Well, yeah, that’s what should happen if engineer #1 does not want to (in this case) break the law. If engineer #2 is willing to, that’s his own problem.

Landed a job in Big Oil?

I’ve been in Big Oil for 2.5 years now :frowning: Ironically originally hired to save whales but now back to killing them again.

Cas :slight_smile:

My favorite part about this case is the fact that VW was the one that lobbied to have such stringent emissions regulations…

the intent was so that no other cars could be made to compete, but they lobbied for too much and had to cheat at their own test.