No, Software-Bricked Tractors Thwarting Russian Looters Is Not A Sign That Either John Deere Or Copyright Is Good

from the enemy-of-my-enemy dept

There are not enough words to describe the horrors of what Russian troops have been doing to their Ukrainian neighbors. But it should go without saying that stealing their stuff is, on its own, not ok.

But it turns out that some of what they’ve stolen is farming equipment. And modern farming equipment at that, which is encumbered with software. But because it is encumbered with software, that means that the ability to control the machine does not remain physically with the machine. Were it an old-school, software-less tractor it would just need to be filled up with fuel to start operating. But not so with modern tractors, whose onboard software systems require licensed users to operate them – whom looters definitely are not.

And so CNN is reporting that that Russian looters are finding themselves unable to use the tractors they stole, because people elsewhere have been able to control the software to make it so the tractors can’t run. They just sit there in their yards as piles of useless metal, instead of valuable agricultural assets.

The sophistication of the machinery, which are equipped with GPS, meant that its travel could be tracked. It was last tracked to the village of Zakhan Yurt in Chechnya. The equipment ferried to Chechnya, which included combine harvesters — can also be controlled remotely. “When the invaders drove the stolen harvesters to Chechnya, they realized that they could not even turn them on, because the harvesters were locked remotely,” the contact said. The equipment now appears to be languishing at a farm near Grozny.

But we should not get carried away celebrating the apparent schadenfreude, because what’s stymying these looters is itself dystopian. Even if you can argue that embedding software logic on a physical piece of equipment, like a tractor, makes for a better tractor, the idea that someone else somewhere else can have dominion over that piece of equipment does not make anything better. Even if that embedded software only serves to function as a form of lo-jack to deter thieves from taking equipment they know they won’t be able to use, it also doesn’t follow that any such software is necessarily better than how things were before either. Because while, sure, in this case this arrangement has helped prevent thieves from benefiting from their ill-gotten gains, in all too many situations it is instead bona fide owners who have been unable to benefit from their own properly purchased property. Which is a huge problem that this one example of apparent karmic justice does not and cannot redeem.

The irony is that teams of hackers have long been hard at work figuring out how to modify the embedded software so that tractor owners everywhere (including in the US) can do what they need to operate and maintain with their own equipment. Including teams of Ukrainian hackers.

To avoid the draconian locks that John Deere puts on the tractors they buy, farmers throughout America’s heartland have started hacking their equipment with firmware that’s cracked in Eastern Europe and traded on invite-only, paid online forums. Tractor hacking is growing increasingly popular because John Deere and other manufacturers have made it impossible to perform “unauthorized” repair on farm equipment, which farmers see as an attack on their sovereignty and quite possibly an existential threat to their livelihood if their tractor breaks at an inopportune time. […] 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. “What you’ve got is technicians running around here with cracked Ukrainian John Deere software that they bought off the black market.”

Of course, these hackers are unlikely to want to help their looting neighbors. Nor likely is John Deere. (Especially here, since many of the tractors appear to have been stolen from authorized dealers.) But even so, it’s not like the Russians will be returning any of these tractors to their rightful owners now that they’ve found they can’t use them. Simply depriving Ukrainians of their own property is a huge blow to them, and the looters may still profit from their thievery by scavenging the tractors for parts and raw materials. So it’s not like John Deere and its embedded software, or the copyright in that software that gives it such control over its sold machines, have managed to right a serious wrong.

But while we can easily recognize how wrong it is for looters to deprive people of the use of their own equipment, we somehow often miss how wrong it is for anyone to so deprive them. The reality is that if you’ve made it so that a tractor owner can’t use their own equipment, you might be a looter. But you also might be John Deere. The only difference is that the looter’s behavior is more clearly lawless, whereas John Deere’s is currently backed up by law. But the effect is just as wrong.

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Companies: john deere

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Comments on “No, Software-Bricked Tractors Thwarting Russian Looters Is Not A Sign That Either John Deere Or Copyright Is Good”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Wanted to point out that tech like lojack, and being able to remotely disable some hw isn’t inherently bad (I didn’t see the article attempt to address this since it is a bit of an aside). It’s bad when it’s not done with the actual consent of the owners (I wouldn’t consider buy the equipment consent for other, lengthier reasons).

I also wouldn’t be too surprised if Russian hackers were able to fix the firmware on the tractors. It probably wouldn’t be cost effective, but it would be a giant finger to being thwarted.

Upstream (profile) says:

RE: the article sub-head

from the enemy-of-my-enemy dept

I have always thought that the idea of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” was highly suspect, at best, and just plain evil at worst, as it so often involves aligning oneself with just another villain. I think we are seeing an example of the worst-case scenario here. This sort of thing might be appropriate for military hardware that might fall into actual enemy hands, but there is no place for non-consensual remote bricking of products one owns in the civil world.

TasMot (profile) says:

But WHO did the bricking?

If the owners (as in the dealers) of the equipment are doing the bricking, then that is good. If John Deere did it just because, then maybe not so much. Or, maybe no so good because they are geo-locked to the Ukraine and when they went out of the geo-fence, they automatically bricked themselves. Slightly more details would be good. I’m looking at this from the point of view that if my mobile phone were stolen and I could remotely brick it, that would be good. Just wiping my data off of it is good too, but the thief can still profit from the stolen phone.

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