About those kill-switched Ukrainian tractors
What John Deere did to Russian looters, anyone can do to farmers, anywhere.
Update: An earlier draft of this story describes the John Deere practice of requiring farmers to buy seed from Monsanto in order to access the data generated by their own plowing. While this was once the case (I had this arrangement described in detail to me by a Deere exec), the company now says farmers can download their data directly.
Here’s a delicious story: CNN reports that Russian looters, collaborating with the Russian military, stole 27 pieces of John Deere farm equipment from a dealership in Melitopol, Ukraine, collectively valued at $5,000,000. The equipment was shipped to Chechnya, but it will avail the thieves naught, because the John Deere dealership reached out over the internet and bricked these tractors, using an in-built kill-switch.
Since that story ran last week, I’ve lost track of the number of people who sent it to me. I can see why: it’s a perfect cyberpunk nugget: stolen tractors rendered inert by an over-the-air update, thwarting the bad guys. It could be the climax of a prescient novella in Asimov’s circa 1996.
But I’m here to tell you: this is not a feel-good story.
I mean, sure. In the short term, it’s really cool to think of those looters arriving in Chechnya only to discover that their looted tractors and combines and such are only good for spare parts (and maybe not even that).
But if you scratch the surface of that cinematic comeuppance, what you find is a far scarier parable about the way that cyberwarfare could extrude itself into the physical world. After all, if John Deere’s authorized technicians can reach out and brick any tractor or combine, anywhere in the world, then anyone who suborns, hacks or blackmails a John Deere technician — say, Russia’s storied hacker army, who specialize in mass-scale infrastructure attacks, which they perfected by attacking Ukrainian embedded systems — can do the exact same thing.
Why are John Deere tractors kill-switched in the first place?
Here’s a hint: the technology was not invented to thwart Russian looters.