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Why American Farmers Are Hacking Their Tractors With Ukrainian Firmware (vice.com) 500

Tractor owners across the country are reportedly hacking their John Deere tractors using firmware that's cracked in Easter Europe and traded on invite-only, paid online forums. The reason is because John Deere and other manufacturers have "made it impossible to perform 'unauthorized' repair on farm equipment," which has obviously upset many farmers who see it "as an attack on their sovereignty and quite possibly an existential threat to their livelihood if their tractor breaks at an inopportune time," reports Jason Koebler via Motherboard. As is the case with most modern-day engineering vehicles, the mechanical problems experienced with the newer farming tractors are often remedied via software. From the report: The nightmare scenario, and a fear I heard expressed over and over again in talking with farmers, is that John Deere could remotely shut down a tractor and there wouldn't be anything a farmer could do about it. A license agreement John Deere required farmers to sign in October forbids nearly all repair and modification to farming equipment, and prevents farmers from suing for "crop loss, lost profits, loss of goodwill, loss of use of equipment [...] arising from the performance or non-performance of any aspect of the software." The agreement applies to anyone who turns the key or otherwise uses a John Deere tractor with embedded software. It means that only John Deere dealerships and "authorized" repair shops can work on newer tractors. "If a farmer bought the tractor, he should be able to do whatever he wants with it," Kevin Kenney, a farmer and right-to-repair advocate in Nebraska, told me. "You want to replace a transmission and you take it to an independent mechanic -- he can put in the new transmission but the tractor can't drive out of the shop. Deere charges $230, plus $130 an hour for a technician to drive out and plug a connector into their USB port to authorize the part." "What you've got is technicians running around here with cracked Ukrainian John Deere software that they bought off the black market," he added.
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Why American Farmers Are Hacking Their Tractors With Ukrainian Firmware

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  • by tinkerton ( 199273 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @06:08AM (#54086681)

    As is the case with most modern-day engineering vehicles, the mechanical problems experienced with the newer farming tractors are often remedied via software.

    As is the case with most tech products, they try to reduce you to a user, not an owner. Maybe the farmers were tired of the tractor stopping in the middle of the field, and starting projecting ads on the windscreen while downloading an upgrade.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @06:13AM (#54086697)

    The problem with a company like John Deere is they loose touch with their customers. John Deere obviously forgot that they service the farmer not the other way around. This too me would have a negative affect on new equipment purchases as well. Growing up in a farming community I know that many farmers do a lot of their own maintenance on equipment. Like any of us saving a little money and avoiding driving that big tractor to a dealer seems like a no brainer. Sadly this kind of behavior is happening to cars and trucks too, where the manufacture wants to lock the DIY out of fixing their cars.

    • The problem with a company like John Deere is they loose touch with their customers.

      Seems to me they have their customers in a fairly tight grip, by the balls, one could even say.

      • by Mashiki ( 184564 ) <mashiki@NospAM.gmail.com> on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @07:26AM (#54086907) Homepage

        Seems to me they have their customers in a fairly tight grip, by the balls, one could even say.

        Actual truth. I grew up in a county that was heavy farming with a city industrial base, the friend I had in high school who were in farming families and are still doing it and many of them have long since moved off Deere equipment. Most are using either Fendt or Mahindra simply because of what you're talking about. Dropping $90k(CAD) for a base model Deere is what drove people away from them. The bullshit they're pulling now is just driving them to their competition, especially when you can get the same from a rival company for 1/3 or less with exactly the same warranty coverage.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @08:32AM (#54087135)

      The problem with a company like John Deere is they loose touch with their customers. John Deere obviously forgot that they service the farmer not the other way around. This too me would have a negative affect on new equipment purchases as well. Growing up in a farming community I know that many farmers do a lot of their own maintenance on equipment. Like any of us saving a little money and avoiding driving that big tractor to a dealer seems like a no brainer. Sadly this kind of behavior is happening to cars and trucks too, where the manufacture wants to lock the DIY out of fixing their cars.

      I am in the auto industry. Perhaps I can explain John Deere. They are trying to become a services company. They see autonomous vehicles on the horizon and the impact on individual ownership. They are making plans to move to a shared services model for their equipment. This is beginning. But, they're clearly jumping the gun. It's too bad the farmers don't wake up and buy a different brand.

      • by rahvin112 ( 446269 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @11:19AM (#54088121)

        No John Deere is doing exactly what they planned when they got the GOP congress to put in an obscure clause into a funding bill that exempted Tractors from the repair requirements that automobiles have. This allowed John Deere to completely restrict access to repairs and to have the full force of the law behind them in doing so. With the computerization of all mechanical objects and a little DMCA thrown in they now have complete control over every tractor they've sold.

        This was a GOP initiated change to law at the request of John Deere. And it's fucking over their own constituency. Remember that the next time you vote.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by operagost ( 62405 )

          There is no Federal law regarding repair requirements for automobiles or tractors. The only relevant law is one passed in 1990 that required computer monitoring of emissions and, in turn, required that independent shops be able to access the data.

          Both major parties have had control at various times, and neither of them was able to get such a law passed. You have been deceived into becoming a loyal low-information Democratic voter.

          • by rahvin112 ( 446269 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @03:41PM (#54090639)

            Since the arrival of the automobile several federal laws have been passed. The earliest laws prohibited manufacturers from requiring repairs by the dealer, required manufacturers to make parts available and prevented manufacturers from restricting access to repair information and diagrams and also probhited sales contracts that required dealer repairs. In the 70's the Magnuson warranty act prohibited manufactures from voiding warranties for repair work not done by the dealers. In the 90's these laws were expanded to prevent manufacturers from using software as a partial weapon (the software rules should have went much further and prevented any DMCA enforcement and even voided copyright restrictions on modification to equipment you own) to get around the previous restrictions and was included in the emissions law.

            Tractors were included in all of these laws excepting the emissions requirements up until a few years ago when the Republican controlled congress deliberately exempted farming equipment with a small change (as part of a unrelated government funding bill) from the prior federal laws. This allowed John Deere to start enforcing all these draconian restrictions that congress had prior to this deliberately prevented and Deere can now can even force purchasers to sign contracts during purchase forcing them to use dealers and even allowing the manufacturer to disable the equipment at a later date as part of these contracts. Prior to the laws revision these contract terms would have been illegal and unenforceable.

            The only low information voter is you and your ignorance of federal law that protects you from being forced to use the dealer for your car service. I'd blame the Democrats for this if they'd been involved as I'm NOT a partisan tribalist which to assholes like you means I'm with the opposite tribe. I'd be a millionaire if I got a $1 for every time I'd been accused of being a Democrat or Republican because I've got an opinion on an issue and the relevant tribe is on the other side.

    • John Deere knows exactly who their customers are. They are corporate farms that buy tractors by the dozen. The newest tractors cost

      It's the reason you're starting to see a lot of other small tractor companies like Mahindra and Kubota come in and cover the space that Deere used to sell to.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @06:16AM (#54086711)

    I've always wanted to visit Easter Europe, but can't find it on a map...

  • Easter (Score:5, Funny)

    by pahles ( 701275 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @06:16AM (#54086713)

    hacking their John Deere tractors using firmware that's cracked in Easter Europe

    Let's hope there are no Easter Eggs in there.

  • Open Tractor(tm) (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @06:20AM (#54086733)

    Time for competition to form the Open Tractor consortium. Components chosen for easy market access, easy repair and open source firmware. Tractor design for easy component access, with signature checks and protected registering for sabotage prevention. "I didn't change the autonomous driving and insecticide spreading components. Why does it tell me so? Aha, hackers employed by the envious cousin, next farm!"

    • Re:Open Tractor(tm) (Score:5, Interesting)

      by tecker ( 793737 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @08:29AM (#54087117) Homepage
      This would be one solution but it wont work. No one is going to buy a tractor from some "open" manufacturer that they have never heard of or pay extra for the "open" tractor. There are a number of factors at work here. 1) Emissions ratings that the manufacturer must meet, 2) Vendor lock-in (and therefore fleet lock in), and 3) Pride. You see out here in the midwest folks are mighty proud of the color of their tractor. It can start an argument faster than vi vs emacs. To come into a market dominated by big players will be a challenge. Especially when there is both manufacturing AND mindshare hurdles to clear.

      The easier solution was already mentioned in the summary: support the Right to Repair bill, in any state, if your state has made one. This doesn't overnight solve the problems and John Deere would probably just pull a TiVo and lock the software and it is business as usual. And expect pushback from the vendors when it comes to these new bills but it is the first step to taking back ownership rather than "licensing" your use of a tractor.
  • by SCVonSteroids ( 2816091 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @06:28AM (#54086763)
    If this were rented equipment, I would understand the company's stance. But if someone outright buys an item, it's theirs. Stop legally binding people to stupid shit when they decide to fork out their hard-earned money for your products. Just because Microsoft does it, doesn't mean it has to be the norm. Christ.
    • by Mashiki ( 184564 )

      Deere is trying to make themselves into a "one-stop" company where you're forced to get everything from them. Auto companies tried the same thing in the late 90's and laws were enacted over it because JP, SK, EU and NA automakers all tried to do it. They're trying again with the new versions of OBD's, luckily they're mainly running up against the law and can't. No such real coverage for farmers, but there is good competition. There was a lot of yelling over this last year at the Canada's Outdoor Farm Sh

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @06:38AM (#54086785) Journal
    These tractors from the Indian company are pretty good, all old school, old tech. No fancy nancy software controlled stuff. Simple rugged diesel engine and clearly understandable mechanical parts. Apparently it is competing well in South Africa with other global giant farm equipment companies, due to "fix it and run it in the bush several hundred miles from the nearest repair shop" ability. Sub compact models are available in USA too.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @08:08AM (#54087063)

      I work in AG, and this is not true at all. Mahindra has all the same ECU's and tech other tractors have, its required for Tier 4 emissions. From what I've seen their tech is vastly more simplistic. The diagnostic abilities of their stuff is extremely limited where it just throws a code rather than giving data streams from the different subsystems.

    • Mahindra has a nice looking 105Hp model for $63,440, but if you need something in the 642Hp range at $642,000, you're not going to find it there.

  • Good! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MouseTheLuckyDog ( 2752443 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @06:51AM (#54086825)

    The more this shit spreads out from the software world, the sooner it ends.

    • Re:Good! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by AntronArgaiv ( 4043705 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @07:59AM (#54087029)

      The more this shit spreads out from the software world, the sooner it ends.

      A farmer buys a tractor so he can farm, not so he can become a continuing revenue stream for John Deere.
      The lesson for Deere is that if you squeeze the customer too hard, he goes elsewhere to relieve the pain.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        The same can be applied to any business. Every used big iron, or the so-called midrange systems that run the world's financial systems? They're milked to death by annual fees, regardless of "updates". Got more CPUs? Cost goes up. Got more storage? Cost goes up. Even MS are happy on this model, and you can bet Apple are itching at it when they have a product that doesn't require buying new. The whole world is moving to rental or sucking blood on a monthly basis.

        Purchased Adobe software recently? No, you can'

  • by Psilax ( 1297141 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @07:06AM (#54086857)

    As an engineer in a big multi-national I also see similar things going on in our company.
    They try to prevent untrained/unauthorized technicians from doing what we call "low-level" maintenance even though our equipment might be of vital importance of that buyer.
    In our company this is not necessary bad intent towards the customer, but more a way of protection our own business because selling only gives you 1 paycheck, service gives you hundreds in the course of years.
    Our machines are pretty comparable in complexity to modern tractors I believe as years of research and development have made it so they are of higher quality for the customer. This does not immediately relate to longer life times of our products but does improve on requirements because of new industry, government & environmental standards.
    But it also makes it harder to do a correct maintenance if you don't know the complete working of the machines.

    Anyways, I don't want to justify John Deer's way of working, or any other car manufacturer ( because that seems to be the case here in Europe), but I do understand their position better.

    The customer should be informed when they buy a product that their new product can only be maintained by the approved technicians, there for the EULA probably that has been forced onto the farmers.
    I also don't know how the market competition is for farming vehicles in USA, Europe or the rest of the world.
    And I think that part should be fixed then, if there is no (reasonable) competition/alternative for the farmers then there is a problem there.

    • by 110010001000 ( 697113 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @07:17AM (#54086881) Homepage Journal
      Exactly. That is what the flight to IaaS/SaaS/Cloud is. It is a way to extract regular rent from customers in order to keep the company CFO happy. CFOs like regular monthly revenue for their planning.
    • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @08:49AM (#54087189)

      Sorry, but there is exactly NO reason to need a "specialist" to make an oil change or switch out a spark plug. There is also no technical reason to put the electronics behind an encrypted access instead of creating an open standard.

      Yes, there's more money in services and vendor lock-in. That doesn't mean I have to understand or even support such practices. It's despicable, and I only use that world to remain civil.

      I can understand when you say that you don't want to be liable for shoddy service and faulty maintenance, but disallowing it altogether is NOT the way to go. It's trivial to create relevant seals for physical service and signatures for electronic maintenance to identify "official" service work from "self serviced" machines, and void certain (extended) warranty promises if someone you didn't approve monkey wrenched the machine.

      It's been that way for a long while with cars now. Some extended warranties only apply if you keep going to the official service partners and have them change your oil in the prescribed intervals and have them do all inspections, along with doing all the repairs they require to sign off your service booklet.

      But the ultimate choice of whether to go with the official service and enjoy the extended warranty promise or to waive it and fix your own gear is up to the owner. And yes, I do consider the person paying good money for your product the OWNER of the product from the moment of PURCHASE.

    • In our company this is not necessary bad intent towards the customer, but more a way of protection our own business because selling only gives you 1 paycheck, service gives you hundreds in the course of years.

      How is that not "bad intent towards the customer?"

  • by AwooOOoo ( 1081997 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @07:44AM (#54086969)
    Regarding the right for owners to have a choice in how their machines are serviced...

    In Europe there is legislation coming into effect in July 2021 which will requires OEMs to provide information to 3rd parts service tool manufacturers and Independent Operators such that they can achieve the same level of diagnostic capability as the OEM with their own tools.
    See links like:
    http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal... [europa.eu]
    http://www.cema-agri.org/publi... [cema-agri.org]

    In the U.S. there is no equivalent legislation in the U.S., but I would not be surprised if we see something similar in a few years. There are groups lobbying to this end, such as;
    http://repair.org/association/ [repair.org]

    Disclaimer: I work for one of the 'other' Ag manufacturers on the topic of making the machines comply with this legislation
  • by maitai ( 46370 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @07:46AM (#54086979) Homepage

    So... just buy something not John Deere... I mean, the logo on the equipment won't match your cap (which is free advertising for the company you seem to not like) but hey...

  • by BlueCoder ( 223005 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @07:55AM (#54087015)

    Farmers should organize an event to burn old non repairable John Deer equipment and advertise their purchase of non John Deer equipment. And further sell t-shirts about how John Deer is no friend to the American farmer. Do this at the Forth of July celebrations. And have town hall meetings with speakers telling their Horror Stories about John Deer. Find another manufacturer and help promote them over John Deer. Some of them might even give you a deal on a trade in if you publicly destroy your John Deer. Do not stop until everyone currently on the board of directors and otherwise that are running the company are completely replaced.

    In the meantime get the right to repair laws on the books.

    • Everyone seems focused on the farmers and their poor little butthurt selves.

      What about the downstream cost? These failures reduce productivity and thus increase the cost of food. They draw money to John Deere for no value-add (rent-seeking). These things reduce the total number of products you can buy with your money (wealth), and reduce the number of people receiving (jobs) the money spent for a given investment of labor-hours (wages).

      The inefficiencies of requiring a tech to stop by just to sign-of

  • Perpetuation (Score:5, Insightful)

    by PoopJuggler ( 688445 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @08:02AM (#54087041)
    And yet they continue to buy John Deere products, perpetuating the cycle.
    • Re:Perpetuation (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Elfich47 ( 703900 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @08:32AM (#54087137)
      I wouldn't be surprised if part of the purchase decision is based on where the closest repair rep is. With John Deere being that controlling to the farmers, I would not be surprised at all if they have attempted to lock in the reps and repair techs as well- "You can be a rep/tech for John Deere or someone else, but not both, we will pull your certifications off the wall and you will be left high and dry" - This is a side effect of the farming consolidation that has been going on for twenty years (or more), there are fewer different people buying tractors so it is easier to try to achieve lock in.

      I think it would be in the other tractor manufacturer's interest to bring their tractors out to the farms for demos (if they don't already) and make sure they talk up the reparability of the unit. The other tractor manufacturers have to realize that a professional, well trained repair staff that gives accurate (non chiseling) repair estimates is going to go a lot further with the farmers that buy and use their products than the attempted lock-in of John Deere.
  • by twmcneil ( 942300 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @09:31AM (#54087429)
    Usually, these guys are modding the firmware to increase horsepower. Sure, I suppose in a few cases it comes down to mechanical breakdown situations, but mostly these guys are trying to squeeze out a few more horses. Last fall, my brother's JD combine started spitting up pieces of main bearings, blew the turbo. Then the rest of the engine went. $25,000.00 for a new engine and a week of down time. Turns out he had chipped the engine and the mechanic said that he had replaced 5 engines in the past weeks for similar failures - all of them chipped. I asked my brother "Why on earth would you chip such an expensive piece of equipment?" He replied that he wanted the extra 10 horses.

    Having said that, there is no way that JD should be able to control the owner of the equipment in the fashion that they do. If the farmers want to mod, they should be able to. Whether it's a good idea or not. It should be the owner's decision.
  • by DickBreath ( 207180 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @10:25AM (#54087729) Homepage
    Imagine if a foreign power could hack all the Deere equipment right at harvest time. However, that would be as unlikely as hacking a national election.
  • by jcr ( 53032 ) <jcr AT mac DOT com> on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @10:58AM (#54087951) Journal

    When a major vendor fucks up and pisses off their customers, that's a chance for smarter competitors to eat their lunch. There must be at least a dozen companies, from Toyota to Caterpillar, who could step in here and serve this market.

    -jcr

  • by TRRosen ( 720617 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @11:02AM (#54087991)

    Actually very few farmers own their own tractors any. At least the high end models. There almost all leased. They are simply to expensive to purchase outright.

  • by havana9 ( 101033 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @12:23PM (#54088741)
    As in don Camillo movie [youtu.be] By the way Russian tractors made nowadays are nice: website. [agromh.com]
  • In 2012, 75% of the 2 million farms in the US produced a paltry three percent of total revenue. In fact, their average annual income was less than $40k per farm, and most of that was from "non-farm" income, like subsidies, retirement income, etc. The dismal data is here. [usda.gov]

    John Deere couldn't care less about those farmers -- the money obviously lies elsewhere. And exactly where is that? In the three percent of farms (classed "large" or "very large" by the US Dept of Agriculture) that accounted for a whopping 52 percent of all production and 66.4% of agricultural revenue in the US.

    So -- John Deere isn't going to worry about a bunch of hayseeds hacking their tractors -- they are not a significant revenue source now, and based on concentration trends in the US agriculture market, they are going to disappear entirely.

    Marx was right about one thing -- owning the means of production (he called it "tools"; we call it hardware, now) is the key to capitalist success, and in a largely mechanized and automated industry like agriculture, that means owning the software, and through it, the hardware. John Deere has apparently grokked it rightly, as well.

  • by istartedi ( 132515 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @02:39PM (#54090097) Journal

    I'd research alternatives to John Deere. I think there are actually some, right? If there are, I'd go to the Deere dealers first. I'd take my time, chat up the sales guy, get all the way to what looks like a closed sale. Then just as I'm about to sign I'd back out and tell him why. Waste their sales guy's time, and tell all your buddies to do it too.

    If all of the companies are pulling this shit, it might be time for another tractorcade like we had in the 70s. Block the Beltway and turn up the turf on the Mall like they did back then. Maybe that'll get their attention.

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