by Kevin Schofield
This weekend’s read is an article from the online news site Vice on John Deere tractors — but, more specifically, about the software that runs on them.
Yes, in this day and age, tractors — which we often envision as the “dumbest” of farm equipment — have software. At the low end, computers and software do much of the same things as the dozens of embedded computers in our cars: They regulate individual aspects of keeping the engine running smoothly and try to detect issues before they become serious. At the high end, they can be more like an autopilot: A tractor can be programmed to plow (or pull a seeder) along a specific path through a field. The software on a tractor has now become essential to its operation, and therein lies the problem: John Deere (like many other companies, in many other fields) maintains strict control over the software embedded into its tractors and, through that software, “maintains control of every aspect of its use.” The company will tell you that when you buy a tractor, you own the hardware, but you are only licensing the software from it, and the licensing agreement for the software that it forces you to sign allows it to exert nearly complete control over the hardware as well.
Most notably, John Deere prevents you from making repairs or modifications to the tractor yourself: If the software detects that parts have been added, removed, or swapped out, it will lock itself up (known as “bricking” because the machine becomes a lifeless object just sitting there) until an authorized Deere dealer or repair facility uses a software tool to unlock it. Deere will tell you that this is for safety reasons: It can’t guarantee the software will work correctly if it’s operating on equipment other than what it was designed for. While that’s a valid concern, experts will tell you it’s not really what’s going on here, and that a key part of the company’s business model, i.e., how it makes money, is in maintaining a monopoly on repair and maintenance of the equipment it sells. This is not uncommon, and it can be traced back decades to a company that upended the shaving-razor market by selling the razor handles cheaply and disposable blades separately: It made its profits not from the razor, but from its customers’ steady, unending need to buy new blades as the old ones wore out. If you have a Keurig “K-Cup” coffee maker on your kitchen counter, you understand this model.
John Deere forces all of its customers to go to authorized Deere repair facilities, and only to those authorized facilities; that causes two big problems for farmers. First, it can cause long delays, especially if the nearest repair facility is hundreds of miles away. The guy down the road can replace that leaky gasket on your tractor, but you still can’t use it until the Deere guy comes out and unlocks the software again. Second, it’s expensive: The authorized Deere representative often charges hundreds of dollars just to come out and press a couple of buttons on a laptop.
As the Vice article details, this has led to many farmers resorting to under-the-table methods to “jailbreak” their tractors. There are illicit online forums for sharing the software tools that authorized John Deere dealers and technicians use to unlock, diagnose, and tune up the company’s equipment. Some farmers have also replaced the software on their tractors with hacked versions — hacked by Ukrainians and sold through an online black market.
There is also a third problem for farmers in the John Deere business model: What happens in the future when the company decides to stop supporting the software on the tractor it sold you — or its authorized repair facilities stop fixing that model of tractor? Deere could decide to do that simply to force farmers to spend more money to buy newer tractors. If you can’t maintain it yourself, then a single broken item, even a simple one, could be enough to “brick” the entire machine forever.
The Vice article is five years old, but essentially nothing has changed in Deere’s business model over that time. The issue arose in the news this week when at a security conference a hacker demonstrated that he had broken the security system in the John Deere software and exposed the outdated versions of Linux and Windows that the company’s software is built upon — making it easier for farmers to jailbreak their own equipment, but also suggesting that hackers with bad intentions could easily sabotage John Deere farm equipment across the global agriculture industry (Deere farm equipment is sold worldwide).
Here’s the other thing: This isn’t a problem just for farmers. The lack of a “right to repair” our own purchased devices, and the control that companies maintain over things they purportedly “sell” us, are issues for all of us. Apple and Google can remotely “brick” our phones, and until recently, Apple has maintained a similar death grip on repair of its phones. Most of the major computer-printer companies force you to buy their “authorized” (read: expensive) ink cartridges and will brick your printer if you install cheaper third-party ink. Any “smart” device, particularly ones that connect to the Internet, is susceptible to this same kind of hostage-taking; that includes household appliances, tablets and laptops, and even cars.
The “right to repair” political movement has gained some traction over the past year, but most of us still aren’t paying attention to how companies — and not just the “Big Tech” behemoths — are leveraging software on the things they sell us to force us to keep paying them money.
Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.
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