Tractor hacking new underground revolution

Many midwest American farmers feel their sovereignty and sense of independence has been violated by the electronic lockups integral to new farm implements.

Their fight for digital independence is part philosophical and part pragmatic. You can almost sense the atmosphere of the Boston Tea Party pulsing in their veins as farmers deal with losing their right to repair the equipment they thought they owned. There’s anger when they realize they only own the iron. A large corporation owns the digital stuff that makes the iron function. And you’re not allowed to mess with digital stuff.

On the pragmatic side, producers are increasingly frustrated over paying a fortune for a tractor or combine that abruptly stops working for no discernable reason. In the high stakes corn/soybean fields of the midwest states, every working hour on a machine has a dollar value. Every stalled hour has a dollar cost.

The philosophical and pragmatic come together, forming an underground hacking movement that is bringing pirated software from the Ukraine into farmyards in the midwest states. The clandestine black market was documented by Jason Koebler in the March 2017 issue of a digital magazine called Motherboard.Vice.

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In the article, Koebler talked to a number of producers who admit to installing the pirated firmware. Firmware is software placed in the hardware semi-permanently. It doesn’t disappear when hardware is powered off. Firmware has quick memory, making it suitable for controlling hardware that requires high performance.

Although we don’t typically think of the Ukraine as a hotbed of leading edge electronic research, that is where the firmware comes from, and it works. So far, the black market firmware is available only at paid online forums. Koebler set about searching for a forum that offered shady JD firmware. It cost $25 to join. He reported finding dozens of threads from farmers using the cracked software. For sale or for free download, Koebler found license key generators, speed limit modifiers and reverse engineered cables needed to connect a laptop to an implement. He also found three JD programs for sale.

John Deere Service Advisor is the diagnostic program that can program payloads, calibrate injectors, calibrate turbos and change engine hours.

John Deere Payload Files specifically program parts of the vehicle such as the chassis or cab.

John Deere Electronic Data Link Drivers is the required software that facilitates communication between a laptop and the implement.

Although importing cracked software may seem illegal, in the U.S. in 2015 the federal government made an exemption to the copyright laws, loosening the restrictions on land vehicle electronic systems. Koebler explains that the exemption means modification of embedded software is legal as long as the vehicle still meets emission requirements.

Many manufacturers brought out technology use agreements at that time, meaning that installing aftermarket software became a contract dispute instead of a crime.

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