When it comes to “jailbreaking” products, people may usually envision hacking smartphones and tablets to skirt tech companies’ limitations on unlicensed modifications. In reality, however, the logic (and subsequent workarounds) are applicable to pretty much any technology reliant on modern electronic systems, and farm equipment is no exception. These days, John Deere’s equipment can be as advanced as any smart device, and is usually controlled via touchscreen computers and frequent software updates. All that proprietary tech has led the iconic company to institute some pretty impressive restrictions on farmers’ personal augmentations.
As Wired and elsewhere recently reported, a hacker known as Sick Codes presenting at this past weekend’s Def Con hacking convention in Las Vegas showcased their newfound ability to control multiple John Deere tractors via vehicles’ onboard touch screens. After months of experimentation on Deere circuit boards, Sick Codes figured out a way to essentially trick the computers during a “reboot check” to fool them into starting up as if being accessed by a certified dealership’s technicians. From there, they were able to access approximately 1.5 GB of log data usually utilized in system diagnostics, as well as a potential route towards even deep computer access.
Aside from highlighting the importance of individual consumers’ being able to troubleshoot vital machinery’s computers themselves, Sick Codes’ breakthroughs also illustrated the vulnerabilities that could be exploited by bad actors via chaining to other attacks. It’s extremely important to balance farmers’ right to access these systems, alongside industry-wide security to prevent agricultural instability and crises. Last year, for example, a ransomware attack on JBS Meat briefly disrupted the company’s productivity. While the overall consequences were limited, that won’t necessarily be the case for future hacks.
Despite this, Sick Codes explained they understand it is also important for farmers’ to have computer access for products like John Deere tractors.
“Farmers prefer the older equipment simply because they want reliability. They don’t want stuff to go wrong at the most important part of the year,” Sick Codes told Wired, adding, “So that’s what we should all want, too. We want farmers to be able to repair their stuff for when things go wrong, and now that means being able to repair or make decisions about the software in their tractors.”