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Tomorrow's world

What if the Russians turned off our tractors?

Wayne Hutchinson/Farm Images/Universal Images Group/Getty

“Here’s a delicious story,” says Cory Doctorow in Medium. Russian looters in Ukraine stole $5m worth of John Deere farm equipment – but when they shipped the kit home, the company remotely activated an “inbuilt kill switch” that rendered the machinery totally inoperable. Ha! Take that, bad guys! Alas, scratch at the surface of this tale of glorious comeuppance, and you find a “far scarier parable”. Bizarre as it may sound, Deere’s kill switches “put the entire food supply chain at risk”.

The company, the largest farm equipment manufacturer in the world, claims the devices are just to stop thieves. But that’s only the half of it. Another reason is to ensure that only Deere technicians can repair the firm’s vehicles – if farmers or other mechanics try to fiddle with them, they automatically get shut down. There are two problems with all this. The first is that it’s nakedly monopolistic behaviour. The second is that it creates a massive cybersecurity risk. John Deere has “extraordinarily terrible information security” – what’s to stop hackers from Russia or elsewhere sneaking in and “bricking” tractors across the globe? Fun as it is to hear about Russian looters being done over, “kill switches impose risks that vastly outstrip the risks they offset”.