A dive into the thriving black market of John Deere tractor hacking.
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.
"When crunch time comes and we break down, chances are we don't have time to wait for a dealership employee to show up and fix it," Danny Kluthe, a hog farmer in Nebraska, told his state legislature earlier this month. "Most all the new equipment [requires] a download [to fix]."
he 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"
"You want to replace a transmission and you take it to an independent mechanic—he can put in the new transmission but the tractor can't drive out of the shop. Deere charges $230, plus $130 an hour for a technician to drive out and plug a connector into their USB port to authorize the part."
"There's software out there a guy can get his hands on if he looks for it," one farmer and repair mechanic in Nebraska who uses cracked John Deere software told me. "I'm not a big business or anything, but let's say you've got a guy here who has a tractor and something goes wrong with it—the nearest dealership is 40 miles away, but you've got me or a diesel shop a mile away. The only way we can fix things is illegally, which is what's holding back free enterprise more than anything and hampers a farmer's ability to get stuff done, too."
Among the programs I saw being traded:
John Deere Service Advisor: A diagnostic program used by John Deere technicians that recalibrate tractors and can diagnose broken parts. "It can program payloads into different controllers. It can calibrate injectors, turbo, engine hours and all kinds of fun stuff," someone familiar with the software told me.
Also for sale (or free download) on the forums are license key generators, speed-limit modifiers, and reverse-engineered cables that allow you to connect a tractor to a computer. These programs are also for sale on several sketchy-looking websites that are hosted in Europe, and on YouTube there are demos of the software in operation.
"Are we supposed to throw the tractor in the garbage, or what?"
It's no surprise, then, that John Deere started requiring farmers to sign licensing agreements around the time the exemption went into effect. Violation of the agreement would be considered a breach of contract rather than a federal copyright violation, meaning John Deere would have to sue its own customers if it wants the contract to be enforced. I asked John Deere specifically about the fact that a software black market has cropped up for its tractors, but the company instead said that there are no repair problems for John Deere customer