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Nebraska Farmers Rely on Ukrainian Hackers to Fix Tractors
Technology, with its promising ease of use and durability, has taken over almost all domains. Until a few years ago, farmers in Nebraska could fix and upgrade their basic farm equipment, including tractors. However, tractors have now become as evolved as smartphones and other modern-day electronics.
Because farm machinery is now so high-tech, the only way to deal with an error is by plugging in a special diagnostic tool – essentially a computer loaded with troubleshooting software that connects to a port inside the tractor – to identify and resolve the problem. Only manufacturers, like John Deere, and authorized dealers are allowed that tool, and they charge exorbitantly to use it.
Kyle Schwarting and his family have been farming in Nebraska for generations. For a fifth-generation farmer, struggling in an increasingly squeezed industry, it is a hard blow. Often, they have to stop production and wait for repairmen to avert the crisis. To farmers it possibly is an existential threat to their livelihood if their tractor breaks at an inopportune time.
As Schwarting puts it:
Let’s say you’re out in the field planting corn, and your tractor breaks down. In my case, the nearest dealership is 75 miles away, so for them to come out could cost me $2,000 to fix a $50 part.
Needless to say, this triggered some alternatives. These farmers have turned to the internet to buy tractor manufacturer software — which has been hacked — from Ukraine and other international black markets. At the same time, fight continues for right-to-repair legislation in Nebraska (and some other states) that would invalidate John Deere’s license agreement.
Jason Koebler, who delved into the details, found much intriguing facts. He found that buying pirated repair software from foreign hackers is common across the US.
I’ve heard from people who do repairs in Virginia, South Carolina and the whole mid-Atlantic. So if you know someone who has the ability to repair the tractor, they become the go-to person.
Pirated software sounds illegal, but in 2015, the Librarian of Congress approved an exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act for land vehicles, which includes tractors. This allowed authorized owners of the vehicle to carry out slight modifications for repair or diagnosis of the device.
In face of the exemption, John Deere included contacts in its license which the farmers were required to sign. The 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.” So now, tampering with the official software would be a breach of contract, allowing the company to sue its customers.
The company maintains, that farmers do not really require a modified software. According to Chuck Studer, director of industry relations for John Deere:
Very few repairs require software, very few repairs require diagnostic software. On those rare occasions when software might be needed, our dealers are well-equipped, and they try to prioritize those repairs to keep machines up and running in the field.
They also stress that:
Software modifications increase the risk that equipment will not function as designed.
While the present scenario is of much worry for these farmers, prospects of future plague them equally. Farmers worry that John Deere might be bought by another company, or if the company decides to stop servicing their tractors. They wish to secure their position by taking control over their equipment, which would serve them in the long run.