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‘Criminal’ attitude of car makers, Asimov’s Law and vulnerable utilities scrutinised by McNiel

‘Criminal’ attitude of car makers, Asimov’s Law and vulnerable utilities scrutinised by McNiel

Posted by Jeremy CowanSeptember 30, 2015

Technological leaps are meat and drink to these columns. But today Jim McNiel doesn’t seem to want to talk about that, so much as how to use the leaps. As global chief marketing officer of newly enlarged NetScout he’s well placed to discuss both.

London, UK. September 29, 2015 — Readers of, our sister title, may recall that in July NetScout spent US$2.3 billion acquiring the communications assets of Danaher (see: NetScout completes Danaher telecoms business purchase) including Tektronix Communications, Arbor Networks and parts of Fluke Networks.

Should we expect to see more intelligence moving to the network edge, Jeremy Cowan asked, since we’re creating these large sensor networks in the Internet of Things (IoT)?

MacNiel pauses over his coffee to consider. “No, I expect distributed networks to be relatively dumb. I mean, how much intelligence is needed in an intelligent fridge?”

Ah, the ubiquitous smart fridge. Mind you, I don’t know anyone who has one. Or wants one.

“How smart do they need to be,” he muses. “They know if they’re on, if they’re functioning, at what temperature. And they may even have a bar code reader that can tell you what’s inside or what’s running low. Then what? What more do they need? It’s more economical to have the intelligence at the core of the network.”

“Cars though, they have a lot of intelligence in two networks; telematics and infotainment.” We start discussing the divergent views on customer data of BMW and Tesla, for example (see: No IoT ‘Killer App’ for consumers but a giant opportunity for Industry 4.0, Summit hears).

Jim McNiel: Network security can cost you more than money

Jim McNiel: Network security can cost you more than money

McNiel brings the talk back. “The car can assume the identity of the phone by docking the phone. I interviewed Adrian Troy recently,” he says, “the inventor of the Google car. Troy says the car should be a carriage, like a train carriage.” He gestures at his colleagues and me. “You’d have four of us just sitting there, not driving. Able to talk.”

Risks and rewards

“Not enough manufacturers have read Isaac Asimov. Network security can cost you more than money,” he says. These days poor security could cost your life (see McNiel’s blog Death By Network – Are Stupid Connected Devices Placing Us At Risk?). “Connected cars will make the right decision about swerving when a squirrel crosses in front of you. They will make the right decision faster than you or me, and they’ll make the right decision every time. Data on everything the connected car sees or does gets pushed back to the cloud, and the car gets the core intelligence of every Google car that’s ever driven.”

“Have car makers done enough to respond to the hacking threat?” I ask, guessing I know the answer. “For example, there are reports Chrysler was told years ago that Jeep Cherokees were vulnerable to the kind of hack attack recently proved by (see After Jeep Hack, Chrysler Recalls 1.4M Vehicles for Bug Fix and our blog: Time for car makers to face new challenges, says Ptolemus Consulting following Jeep ‘hackjack’ )

“I think it’s criminal how little auto manufacturers have done. It was criminal of Chrysler, it was criminal what VW did.” I can feel Jim McNiel’s PR minder shifting nervously next to me as he continues. “It’s basic robotics. It’s unconscionable to build robots without basic robotic rules. Just look at iRobot.” (Asimov’s Laws, or the Three Laws of Robotics, are laid out in his 1942 short story, Runaround and were picked up later in the 2004 movie starring Will Smith). The laws are:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

What about other industries? How much are they doing to identify threats to their customers? I ask. After all the US government has admitted that America’s energy utilities were subjected to more hack attacks in 2014 than any other industry sector.

“They have no basic rules either. That’s why Obama is so concerned at the Chinese.” McNiel’s PR executive seems to be developing a nervous cough. “The Chinese don’t have to hack to know how to make a power plant. They hack to find out how to shut it down. If you go after six US power grid supertransformers they can take months to repair or replace, they cost millions apiece, and there are no spares.” He shrugs in despair, “We used to not even make them safe from physical attack!”

The conversation has been flowing freely, although I had thought we were going to talk about service assurance. But hey, we’ll come to that…

You can read Part 2 of Jim McNiel’s conversation with Jeremy Cowan, editorial director of and, on Monday.

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