1. Security
March 27, 2017updated 28 Mar 2017 4:11pm

US farmers are paying Ukrainian hackers to access their tractors

If you thought that buying a tractor meant you had the right to drive, fix and repair as you saw fit, you would be wrong, if that tractor was made by John Deere.

According to reports, including US farming trade paper thrillingly named Modern Farmer, desperate farmers in the US are turning to Ukrainian hackers to bypass manufacturer’s software for sophisticated and expensive repairs.

John Deere tractors (made famous by their striking green and yellow design) much like sophisticated cars in the consumer world, carry on-board computers which regulate and run their engine and systems, and which must be accessed when physical repairs are made.

Licensed to farm

John Deere insists that farmers license the tractors online when they buy them, as the manufacturer still owns the copyright on-board the vehicles.

In 2015 the US copyright office said farmers were entitled to root or jailbreak their tractors (much like you would an iPhone on a fixed network) and giving the farmers full access the vehicles operating system – but the copyright office does not have the power to allow the farmers to make a tool to jailbreak the software, meaning it’s something of an empty gesture.

And the Deere services don’t come cheap. Reports suggest that it’s $230 plus $130 an hour for an engineer to simply plug a USB into the tractor to authorise a part change in the vehicle’s software.

That’s on top of the charges to actually fix the tractor.

So farmers have been harnessing the power of secret online chatrooms to seek out help from Ukrainian — and in some cases Polish — hacking communities to pay for cracked copies of the Deere software, so they can authorise the fixes themselves.

In a twist on the story, Nebraska and four other states are considering so-called right to repair legislation, but according to reports, the states’ legislators are facing stiff opposition from automotive companies, Apple and big agriculture corporations, who are keen to protect their intellectual property and after-sales revenue streams.

The Verdict

As we move into the age of the much-vaunted Internet of Things, where there is a growing correlation between software and equipment, people must be aware that with progress comes complexity.

Where does our traditional idea of ownership end and begin?

Tractors are, in this case, bought outright, but there could still be intellectual property, or equity, in them that still belongs to someone else.

Pretty philosophical, some might say, but the farmers who are paying the manufacturer a software licence fee upon each fix might think differently.

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