‘Liberate the tractors’: the movement that’s regaining control of our things

The latest victory for the right-to-repair movement is the successful hacking of tractor tractors. Paul Coulton and Michael Stead, two campaign supporters, highlight other victories

The software that runs John Deere tractors was successfully “jailbroken” at this year’s DEF CON hacker convention, enabling farmers to repair or retune their equipment without engaging with the company that sold them their vehicles.

The hacker involved, who calls himself Sick Codes, was responding directly to US farmers’ long-standing concerns that their ‘smart’ John Deere cannot access the software necessary to repair tractor tractors. Smart tractors, including John Deere models, are widely used in the UK.

Sick Codes’ jailbreak was undertaken to “liberate the tractors”, he said. John Deere responded in a statement to Wired magazine that it works closely with cybersecurity partners and also “embraces the broader ethical hacking community” to ensure its security capabilities remain industry-leading. The manufacturer responded to farmers’ demands in March 2022 by launching the announcementIt said that it would make its software repair tools more accessible to customers and mechanics starting next year.

Smart tractor is one of many thousands of devices and machines that have added software to their existing functions. Manufacturers have the ability to control our devices long after we buy them.

Hacking tractor software is the latest example of the fightback against this power, called the ‘right to repair’ movement. Motivated by consumer rights and environmental concerns, it’s a movement that’s gathering pace worldwide. But our research shows the power remains firmly in manufacturers’ hands – for now.

Consumer exploitation

Owners of smart or ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) devices – from smartphones to internet-connected coffee makers – may have experienced similar frustrations to the owners of John Deere tractors.

Some tech companies have taken the digital support services that keep older models running and shut them down to encourage customers to buy newer models. Sonos, the smart speaker manufacturer, was forced to backtrackAfter being criticized for its plans to eliminate its older speakers in this manner, Sonos CEO Patrick Spence announced that it will phase them out in 2020. In an open letter addressing customers’ outrage, Sonos CEO Patrick Spence admitted that “we did not get this right from the start”.

Right to repair

Smartphones are among those devices that aren’t built to last, or that can be easily fixed. Image: Kilian Seiler

Additional layers of software also allow manufacturers to control their customers’ access to features built in to their products. BMW requires all new customers to buy a subscription to the service. heated seatsIn the vehicles they own.

Many smart devices are made to last a short time and can be replaced by newer models quickly. This is a manufacturing strategy known as planned obsolescence. Other practices, such as adjusting a smartphone’s battery performance via its operating system, have led to accusations of deliberate battery throttlingManufacturers to increase sales.

Manufacturers argue that controlling internet-connected products is essential to protect consumers from cyberattacks. However, sometimes this control can be used to exploit customers. It’s also a key factor in the increase in the number of devices going to landfill as electronic waste, or e-waste, and the extraction of more and more of the planet’s precious resources.

In 2019 alone, the world generated 53.6m tonnes of e-wasteThis figure is expected to rise to 74.7m tons by 2030. Europe has less than 40 per cent of e-wasteSustainable recovery is possible through material recycling and reusable part harvesting.

By 2030, it is estimated there will be more than 25bn active smart devices worldwide. Many of these devices will end-up in the landfill within a few years, if current manufacturing methods are maintained.

Repair is possible

Campaign groups such as Repair.EU, Repair.orgAnd The Restart Project have successfully lobbied governments to introduce ‘right to repair’ legislation for electronic products. These laws were announced at the EU level in 2020, and went into effect in the UK in summer 2021.

The legislation seems to tilt the balance of power in the favor of consumers. The law encourages manufacturers and other businesses to make their electronic products more durable by making them easier to repair. It also compels them to supply spare parts for ten years after their products’ initial production.

Right to repair

2019 saw the production of 53.6m tonnes e-waste worldwide. Image: Eirik Solheim

The reality is that manufacturers retain control of the market. The current repair right only covers a few products, such washing machines, dishwashers and refrigerators. Despite the increasing volume of IoT waste, smart, IoT devices are not included in this repair.

Are you ready to give power to the people?

Apple created a product-repair program in 2022. This was apparently in support of the right to repair. However, Apple continues to promote serialization and loans customers its repair equipment at a high price. Only approved, costly components can be used for repairs. The equipment itself has been criticized for being difficult to use and cumbersome.

The UK government made a decision in June 2022 to end right to repair activists. not to follow EuropeSign up to a standard for USB ports design that aims to reduce the number of wires we have. This will only increase interoperability among devices and will limit our ability to reduce IoT waste in the next years.

Most importantly, our research has revealed, the general population lacks the capacity to repair their devices – in part because the tools to do so have been withheld from them for so long.

Repair shops in the community

We began to address this critical issue. The Repair Shop 2049Project to explore how ordinary people could repair their own devices. This research has challenged the status quo in manufacturer control by creating an open, citizen-led IoT Repair Centre in Blackburn, England.

Collaboration closely with The Making Rooms, Blackburn’s public makerspace and creative hub for digital innovation, our work is seeking to empower ordinary citizens with the knowledge, tools and confidence to repair and reuse IoT devices within their communities.

Software manufacturers can keep control of our devices long after we have purchased them.

Our project involves repairers, council leaders and consumers as well as manufacturing representatives. Our workshops have so far revealed a number of barriers: chiefly, a lack of public awareness of the right to repair, a shortage of practical expertise, and the friction generated by manufacturers’ presiding grip on device repair. However, there is also a deep enthusiasm for the project’s vision among the Blackburn community.

The future Fixing the FutureThis project will allow us continue exploring local IoT repairs alongside The Making Rooms, our research partners from Napier, Edinburgh, and Nottingham universities, as well as our new partners at Which? and BBC R&D.

The right to repair movement is a way to give power back to owners of devices, whether it’s allowing them to fix their phones or liberating tractors. The movement can also be aligned with circular economy principles and help communities reduce e waste and contribute to a sustainable, zero-carbon future.

Michael Stead is lecturer in sustainable design futures at Lancaster University, England. Paul Coulton is senior lecturer in design at Lancaster University, England. 

This article is republished under Creative Commons license from The Conversation. Read the original article.

Main image: Randy Fath

The Conversation

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