FTC Investigator Meets With Farmers on Deere Data Privacy
An FTC investigator met this month with a group of Nebraska farmers who allege John Deere is abusing data privacy. Deere’s “monopolistic” data practices are preventing farmers’ right to repair, they alleged.
Deere is increasingly turning to precision farming data to sell agricultural systems (see 1907230050). The company has discussed connectivity and precision farming concerns with FCC officials (see 2010280023). State and congressional lawmakers, meanwhile, are pushing right-to-repair legislation after renewed focus from the FTC and the White House (see 2108250073). The FTC declined to comment last week.
The tech investigator led the phone conversation with farmers Sept. 9. Dan Salsburg, chief counsel in the Consumer Protection Bureau’s Office of Technology Research and Investigation, discussed complaints that Nebraska farmer Kevin Kenney filed with the agency between April and September. Salsburg is one of the authors of the FTC’s Nixing the Fix report.
Kenney’s complaints allege monopolistic “activities that effectively tie all repair and replacement part orders” to Deere-authorized dealers. The company and its dealers are using GPS data to track, monitor and discourage equipment owners from using independent repair, despite conflicting advertisements, he alleged. Deere didn’t comment.
Deere can cite license agreements and contracts, but the data collection practices aren’t known by the average farmer, said Willie Cade, a Nebraska Farm Bureau member and board member of Repair.org. He was on the call with Kenney and Salsburg. “Even when the machine is turned off, John Deere is collecting data about your machine and your operation,” Cade said: People have no concept of the “breadth and depth” of data collection and how that can affect economics.
“Farms are companies, and there’s data privacy enshrined in those terms of incorporation,” said Scott Smith, an engineer working with U.S. policymakers on legislation. “Reading John Deere user agreements, you’re not even allowed to turn it off. They have the right under the agreement, under the contract of sale, to turn it back on again. These things are very much an overreach, very invasive. When it comes to the farming practices and the competitive advantage one farm has over another, there’s no such thing as trade secrets of all the data flying around.”
“Deere does this as well as Apple or anybody else,” said farmer Tom Schwarz, who was on the call. “They’re basically saying, ‘We can have your data, and we can do whatever we want with it.’ We as individuals have got to start waking up to the fact that that data has a lot of value, and we need to protect it.”
The “exploitation” started more than a decade ago, but awareness is just now increasing, said Smith. There are application programming interfaces that allow software developers access to all Deere data, he said. The data collected can be reverse-engineered to build live “digital twins” of farm operations -- everything down to financials and accounting, he said: “People are capitalizing and investing in these technology developments because there’s money to be made. It’s no different than Facebook, Apple, Google.”
Putting independent farm equipment repair shops on a level playing field with independent auto repair shops requires “an effective federal regulatory response that makes that happen,” said Nebraska Farmers Union President John Hansen in a statement. “Some domestic farm equipment manufacturers need clear and strong federal guidance.” The union welcomes FTC involvement, he said, calling it an issue of fairness and competition: “The monopolies that control farm equipment have put their dealerships and customers in conflict for purely financial gain reasons.”
Deere “has been pushing data up to a cloud, whether the farmer wanted it done or not,” said Kenney. This means cyber risks, said Cade, noting he has communicated with FBI officials over the past two months. There isn’t a “single data set on the cloud that hasn’t been hacked,” said Smith, saying the FBI is aware and engaged. The bureau’s Cyber Division warned industry Sept. 1 about cyber criminals targeting food and ag sectors with ransomware. The FBI didn’t comment.
There hasn’t been a major cyber breach in row-crop farming, said Schwarz: But “I’m scared to death of the possibility of a hacker coming in and shutting down corn harvest or soy bean harvest or worse yet, maybe even planting in the spring.”
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said in a brief interview she’s not aware of the FTC complaint, but said, “I’m very concerned about data privacy. Not just for people in agriculture but across the board. We continue to look at that on the Commerce Committee but haven’t been able to come together in any kind of legislation to address it.” Offices for the rest of the Nebraska congressional delegation didn’t comment.