Rian Wanstreet, Motherboard:
Farmers should be able to fix their tractors. This seems so obvious, that the very idea that corporations like John Deere are telling farmers that they can’t resonates as a gross violation of fair play. Indeed, the right of anyone to fix, tinker, modify, or even just access their own stuff—their phones, cars, washing machines—seems basic, yet it’s something that has been quietly eroded by corporations trying to corner the lucrative repair market.
Agriculture has entered the era of Big Data and “Precision Agriculture.” Some estimates say this industry will grow to $43.4 billion by 2025. All of the BigAg companies are on board, and most (if not all) of the new machinery being released incorporates sensors. This means any new farming equipment is built to be interconnective and to scoop up data wherever it can, which is then combined with historical information like weather reports. The company can then provide “prescriptions” on where, when, and how much to plant, fertilize, and chemicalize.
But while all these pieces of equipment are simultaneously creating and uploading this data, large questions have not been answered: Who owns the data? Who is controlling it? How is it being shared? These are issues being raised with some trepidation by the farmers themselves, who recognize the utility of their data. They want to know how the data is being exploited, if and how it can be used against them, and the ways it is being monetized without their knowledge or consent.
Equipment manufacturers know their customers will find it almost impossible to leave their precision agriculture data platforms once they’ve joined, and almost as hard to stay away. The discourse trumpeting the usefulness of precision agriculture tools has so much momentum, adoption is being described as inevitable. Promises in efficiencies and production are touted to outweigh any potential problems.
The general belief is that those who buy-in to a precision data platform will have no choice but to stay in, and as more come onboard, the more it will seem that everyone has to join. Think about it like Facebook, but for agricultural equipment.
Deere’s large precision ag machines can cost upwards of $500,000; very few farmers own them outright. The leaseholder is often Deere itself, as the company has become the fifth largest agricultural lender in the sector, loaning money not only for machinery but seed, fertilizer, chemicals, and fuel (some of which also happens to be sold by Deere.) It’s a “cyclical industry” or a “vicious cycle,” depending on who you’re asking. And the farmers themselves are already questioning if it’s worth buying into the cycle at all.
But if these farmers can hack their devices, who else can? As mentioned, farms now are full of interconnected devices, meaning there are many points of entry for a remote attack. Can a bad actor hack a tractor, a sensor, or a combine and hold a farmer’s crop hostage? Will our farmers become the next big victims of ransomware? Could someone—maybe even a state actor—bring a whole network of tractors down, or force a script to dump 10 percent more chemicals or fertilizer, effectively salting the earth? These examples wouldn’t just be an attack on farmers, but on the United States’ food security and economy.
In March of 2016, The FBI sent out a bulletin warning farmers about potential security risks, comparing the potential issues to those already being experienced in the health sector.
The fact that farmers are willing to hack their own machines makes it evident that they are eager to find ways to implement new technologies in a manner that allows them to maintain agency over their tools and finances.
Promising initiatives like Open Source Ecology and Farm Hack exist, and open-source software is being developed, but they have yet to become commercially viable. Many of these tools rely on the ingenuity and resiliency of individual farmers to build and implement.
But if the right to repair fight is showing us anything, it’s that farmers epitomize resiliency and ingenuity. If any community can implement new technologies and innovate upon them, it’s them.