How a Hacked Tractor Added Fuel to the Right-to-Repair Movement

This week, we discuss the latest John Deere tractor hack and its broader implications for repair rights advocates….


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Lauren Goode: No, but I have repaired my own iPhone. There was a period of time where I broke two iPhones in a row, shattered the screen. And I bought an iFixit kit and repaired the screen myself.

Michael Calore: Nice.

Lauren Goode: I felt pretty good about that.

Michael Calore: Nice. Even though you voided your warranty?

Lauren Goode: Sure. That’s what they try to tell you.

Michael Calore: Have you ever jailbroken a tractor?

Lauren Goode: Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to jailbreak or repair a tractor.

Michael Calore: Oh. Well, somebody might be able to help you, so we should talk about it.

Lauren Goode: Let’s do it.

[Gadget Lab intro theme music plays]

Michael Calore: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Gadget Lab. I am Michael Calore. I am a senior editor at WIRED.

Lauren Goode: And I’m Lauren Goode. I’m a senior writer at WIRED.

Michael Calore: We’re also joined this week, once again, by WIRED senior writer, Lily Hay Newman. Lily, welcome back to the show.

Lily Hay Newman: I’m happy to be here.

Michael Calore: Even if you aren’t a farmer, you have probably heard of John Deere. The company makes tractors and the kinds of big equipment that farmers use to plow their fields and harvest their crops. And in recent years, farming has gotten very tech-savvy. We’re talking about autonomous navigation and Wi-Fi and touchscreens and everything. And John Deere has really been at the front of this trend.

John Deere has also been controversial for keeping all of this tech proprietary. Meaning, if something breaks, you’ve got to call in a John Deere technician to fix it. The company has become a lightning rod for advocates in the right-to-repair movement who argue that people should be empowered to fix their own stuff if they want to, without having to go to a certified, and therefore more expensive, repair center.

We’ll get into repairability in the second half of the show. But first, let’s talk about John Deere specifically. Now, Lily, you wrote a story for WIRED this week about a hacker who demonstrated how to gain full control of a John Deere tractor by bypassing the company’s built-in software. This hack was shown off at Def Con, which is a conference that’s a premier venue for this type of thing. So, quickly tell us, to set the scene a little bit, what is Def Con, and what typically happens there?

Lily Hay Newman: Def Con is a information security and digital privacy research conference, but a really fun, wild one where hackers and researchers descend on Las Vegas to show off their findings, hacking all manner of applications and real things, like tractors, but also medical devices, pacemakers, satellites. I guess literally, the sky’s the limit.

Lauren Goode: And so, what happened this year at Def Con with a hacker named Sick Codes?

Lily Hay Newman: Sick Codes has done some John Deere-related hacking in the past and hacking of services from other tractor manufacturers. But in the past he had worked on research related to hacking systems like application programming, interfaces, and web services related to how the tractors connect up or sync up with bigger services from the companies. And this year he said he wanted to really put his money where his mouth was. And he demonstrated a full jailbreak of a tractor, meaning full control, root access to do whatever he wanted with the tractor. And as he described it, root access is very rare in Deerland.

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