This week on my podcast, I read my Medium column, "About Those Killswitched Ukrainian Tractors," in which I am a bit of a buzzkill about that feel-good story of a Ukrainian John Deere dealership bricking $5m worth of tractors stolen by Russian looters:
A *lot* of people sent me this story. It's a perfect cyberpunk nugget! But despite the superficial appeal of this electronically delivered comeuppance to Russian looters, this isn't a feel-good story. The underlying lesson here is: "Anyone who can pressure, hack, or convince John Deere can brick any Deere tractor, anywhere."
Who might do such a thing? Well, possibly Russia, whose militarized hacker teams honed their tactics by successfully effecting remote takeovers critical Ukrainian infrastructure. The same kill-switch that Ukraine used to take down some petty Russian looters could be used by Russian hackers to attack the entire Ukrainian agriculture sector:
Which raises the question: why are there kill-switches in Deere tractors? This is a good question to ask about *any* kill-switch. As a sf writer, I just *hate* those sci-fi movies where someone accidentally hits the self-destruct button on the bridge of a spaceship. I always think, "You know, I'm no aerospace engineer, but wouldn't this be a better spaceship if it wasn't designed to explode?"
The kill-switches in Deere tractors weren't designed to thwart Russian looters - they were designed to thwart *American farmers.* Deere's industrial strategy takes its cues from other industries - mobile phones, cars, med-tech, etc: they use tech to lock in their customers, harvest and sell their data, and extract fees from them.
In Deere's case, this started with a data-play: as a top Deere exec boasted to me at a conference some years ago, the company uses the sensors on farmers' tractors to build a centimeter-accurate grid of soil humidity and density. The locks on Deere tractors prevent farmers from accessing this data directly - rather, they are reliant on whatever plans Deere cooks up.
Originally, Deere denied farmers this data, except through their preferred seed partner Monsanto (now Bayer). Deere sold the data - and the farmers - to Monsanto, and farmers who wanted to practice precision agriculture needed to do so with Monsanto seed. Today, Deere allows farmers to download their data from an online portal, but that could change again.
I'm not surprised to learn that Deere has stopped selling farmers to Bayer, because - as that executive boasted to me - the real money in ag data is in aggregating global soil condition data, from *all* Deere customers, and selling it to the finance sector to inform commodity futures trades. Deere sells farmers' data to people making bets against the farmers.
Remember this the next time you hear, "If you're not paying for the product, you're the product." Deere doesn't give away ad-supported tractors. Farmers pay six- and seven-figure sums for Deere equipment - and they're still the product. The thing that determines whether a company can treat you like "product" isn't whether you're paying - it's whether they can get away with it.
Deere can get away with it. Having merged with or acquired so many rivals, they have market power - that is, monopoly power. What's more, the law is on their side. Specifically, they benefit from Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which bans breaking DRM and makes trafficking in DRM-breaking tools a 5-year prison-sentence felony.
This law - and related laws, like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, as well as contract law, trade secrecy, patents, etc - gave rise to a practice called VIN-locking. VIN-locking started in the automotive industry (VIN stands for Vehicle Identification Number), and it's the main battle in the right to repair (R2R) fight.
These VIN-locks are protected by the DMCA. Providing a tool to bypass them, which would allow independent mechanics to swap in the part and then initialize it, carries a potential prison sentence of 5 years and a $500K fine for a first offense. Thus, the act of fixing a car without manufacturer authorization becomes a crime.
Farmers have been doing their own repairs since time immemorial - that's why even Roman farmhouse foundations have spaces for forges and workshops. When you're at the end of a country road and the storm is on the horizon, you have to get the crops in, and you can't wait for a mechanic or technician to come and fix the tools you depend on.
Deere owes its business to farmers' tractor modifications and repairs. It once sent field engineers out to farms across America to report back on farmers' innovations, which it then patented (ugh, I know) and incorporated in its future tractors:
Worse, Deere actually told the US Copyright Office that farmers *don't own their tractors* - they *can't*, because the software in the tractor is only *licensed*, not *sold*, so they have to abide by the tractors' terms of service.
Deere was joined by other companies in making this claim - notably, GM and other car makers (that is, the companies behind VIN-locking). But it's not just car companies and tractor monopolists who say you can't own (or fix) your stuff. Med-tech companies love this. Take Medtronic, a med-tech monopolist that is one of the lowest-taxed medical companies in the world, thanks to a reverse-merger with an Irish company.
Medtronic makes the workhorse PB840 ventilator, a two decade old product that is widely found in hospitals around the world. Hospital technicians - like farmers - have a long tradition of fixing their own equipment, for much the same reason. When the ventilator breaks, you need to fix it so you can save someone's life, rather than waiting around for a Medtronic technician to show up and charge hundreds of dollars for a service call.
But Medtronic also practices VIN-locking, which means that the simplest, most common repairs - cannibalizing a working part out of a busted ventilator to keep another one going - are no longer possible without breaking the DMCA. That's exactly what hospital med-techs did during lockdown, when demand for ventilators spiked just as Medtronic grounded all its technicians.
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