In addition to plowing fields, these days John Deere tractors can drive themselves, target weeds—and serve up video games.
Earlier this month, an Australian hacker did a live jailbreak of a John Deere tractor display to play Doom on it. The hacker, who goes by Sick.Codes, wasn’t out to prove that a six-ton, $35,000 machine makes for a good video game console. Rather, he wanted to show how farmers could hack into their tractors to fix them instead of relying on licensed dealers.
“Farmers can see that and know there’s someone in their corner,” Sick.Codes told Quartz.
As tractors become more high-tech, who gets to fix and manage them is up for debate. Many farmers are used to repairing their equipment and want to keep that right. But tractor manufacturers like John Deere say unsanctioned tweaking of their equipment poses safety hazards.
Sick.Codes’ hacking demonstration is part of a broader movement for the right to repair equipment—from phones to cars. Its advocates are gaining allies. Last year, the Biden administration issued an executive order asking the Federal Trade Commission to come up with new regulations that would limit manufacturers’ ability to restrict consumers from repairing the products they purchase.
But that comes with some challenges and risks. Diagnosing and fixing high-tech equipment requires digital savvy—including knowing how to code—and overriding manufacturer settings may open the door to hacker attacks.
Right-to-repair advocates claim John Deere is a big tech monopoly using digital locks to make farmers go through an authorized dealer or agent in order to fix their equipment.
“We are harvesters of sunlight and have a very short window to get our crops planted and harvested,” said Guy Mills, a fifth-generation farmer in Nebraska in a statement (pdf) to the US Copyright Office. “This leaves farmers literally at the mercy of dealers who are in a position to charge exorbitant prices to accommodate their customers’ urgent needs.”
The office has the power to let consumers legally circumvent security measures that control access to a copyrighted work, i.e. grant them the right to hack. But it denied farmers’ requests in 2021, focusing instead on the right to repair electronic devices like phones.
John Deere is trying to address some of farmers’ criticism. In May, the company expanded its access to digital tools to diagnose and make calibrations. It also launched a website to provide farmers and independent repair shops with technical manuals, consulting, and diagnostic tools that were previously only available through its dealerships.
The company says farmers should now be able to handle 98% of all repairs if they choose to do so. “We know uptime is critically important to our customers,” the company said in a statement. “Having said that, we do not support customers modifying embedded software due to risks related to the safe operation of equipment, emissions compliance, and uncertainty in the aftermarket.”
Still, distance, time, and the cost of moving Deere equipment to a dealer for minor repairs has led some farmers to hack their tractors. Some have also filed lawsuits against Deere alleging the company has forced them to pay for overpriced repair and maintenance services, most recently in Alabama.
Sick.Codes, meanwhile, said he did not reverse-engineer Deere’s software, as the company says, but entered the system and wrote his own code on top of it. “I’m like their weirdest enemy,” he said. “They can’t seem to figure out why I do it...I was just having fun.”
But he also wants farmers to understand the risks of jailbreaking: “It does expose you [to hackers].”