Precision Ag: Modern Farmers Turn to Hackers to Maintain Ag Equipment
13 June 2017
Photo Credit: Deere and Company
Farmers are known for getting done what needs to be done. In today’s technological world, that can even mean becoming somewhat of a technology expert to modify the software integrated in modern agricultural machinery and equipment.
When equipment breaks down, it needs to be repaired and back in service as quickly as possible. For generations, farmers have moonlighted as their own mechanics – get the job done and get the tractor back to work. There isn’t time to slow down.
Until John Deere forces you to slow down, that is.
Software installed in newer John Deere tractors place the equipment into a “lockdown” mode so that only John Deere-authorized dealerships can perform repairs. Farmers must now leave the fields and wait for licensed repair technicians to digitally authorize repairs through USB ports.
They can no longer repair their own equipment, or allow an independent, often cheaper, mechanic to perform repairs. So farmers are turning to the internet to modify the John Deere software in a process known as “hacking” or “jailbreaking” their tractors.
Who Owns the Software on Your Equipment?
In 1998, President Clinton signed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to oversee the way Americans use digital resources. Initially designed to protect software manufacturers from piracy, DMCA reached much further – straight to the heart of farming country.
Before DMCA passed, John Deere was already installing extensive software into their tractors. The software controlled everything from guidance and diagnostics to safety and emission controls. Under the DMCA, the bypassing or modifications of the software would be considered a crime.
Due to consumer outcry, the US Copyright Office stepped forward in 2015 to exempt several types of software from the DMCA regulations. The current Class 21 exemption covers motor vehicles and farm equipment.
“The Register concluded that reproducing and altering the computer programs on ECUs (electronic control units) for purposes of facilitating diagnosis, repair, and modification of vehicles may constitute a noninfringing activity as a matter of fair use,” reported the Federal Register. The agency continued to remind consumers that safety and emission regulations must still be respected.
The Class 21 exemption allows farmers the right to access the software on their equipment for repair or modification purposes. Although the action could void the manufacturer warranty, it is not illegal to modify the software in the process of a repair.
John Deere Takes Control
The famous green tractor manufacturer responded to the idea of exempting farm equipment from the DMCA by issuing official comments to the Copyright Office. John Deere argues that the purchase of John Deere equipment is not for the equipment, but for an “implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.”
Jason Koebler of the tech website Motherboard reports that in October 2016 John Deere required farmers to sign licensing agreements forbidding nearly all repairs and modifications unless performed by a dealership or authorized repair shop. The agreement applies not only to the equipment owner but to anyone who comes into contact with the equipment.
The company says that the agreement is to protect both the farmer and the equipment.
“Access to information that would allow changes to a machine’s data-management systems must be carefully controlled to ensure machine functionality, safety, and emissions compliance, and to preserve product warranties,” John Deere argued, urging consumers to leave software-related repairs to the experts.
Give Farmers the Right to Repair
“When crunch time comes and we break down, chances are we don’t have time to wait for a dealership employee to show up and fix it,” testified hog farmer Danny Kluthe to the Nebraska legislature in March 2017.
In response to the outcry from farmers, many states have stepped up to try and force John Deere and other manufacturers to give consumers the “right-to-repair.” Minnesota, Massachusetts, New York, and Nebraska have all introduced bills focusing on fair access to service information for owners and independent mechanics.
“The primary impetus is that we are an agricultural state,” State Senator Lydia Brasch (R), Nebraska, told Popular Mechanics. “When we have an equipment breakdown, sometimes there’s a waiting period to get repairs down [sic]. At the same time, you’re chasing daylight, and you’re helpless during that period of time to diagnose, to maintain, or to repair your own equipment as you had in the past. Farmers are falling behind waiting in the queue for someone to work on their equipment.”
Not surprisingly, one of the main opponents of right-to-repair legislation is Ag giant John Deere. The company has been fairly successful in stopping most current legislation, although right-to-repair supporters pledge to reintroduce defeated bills and continue the fight.
Ukrainian Hackers Join the Fight
Internet forums are full of information on hacking your John Deere tractor for repair purposes. Koebler reports finding many farmers desperate for software modifications. While not technically illegal black-market products, the software hacks violate both John Deere’s End User License Agreement (EULA) and equipment warranties.
YouTube videos teach farmers how to use reverse-engineered cables to hook up their computers for free downloads of license key generators and speed limit modifiers. The majority of the software programs originate in Eastern European countries, such as Ukraine and Poland. Popular programs for purchase include John Deere payload files, service advisor diagnostics, and electronic data link drivers.
While the internet forums will introduce you to many farmers who are now proud John Deere equipment hackers, caution must be exercised. The software sold on the internet is from mostly unknown sources. The providers of these hacks are often located in other countries and generally hide under anonymity. Typically, you have no idea what you are purchasing, and the only way to know if the software will actually modify your equipment is to download it and test it out. The potential to infect your farm equipment with malware and botnets is extremely high. The damage to a John Deere tractor could potentially end up costing farmers much more than the original fees for a John Deere-authorized repair. While alluring, it’s a risk many farmers can’t afford to take.