Hackers Are Outsmarting Anti-Repair Tactics

Hackers Are Outsmarting Anti-Repair Tactics

Every week there are too many developments in the world of repair for any mere mortal to keep track of. Fortunately, the folks over at the Fight to Repair newsletter are here to help: recapping the most important repair news for iFixit readers. As a special offer, iFixit.com readers can claim a free, 60-day premium membership to the Fight to Repair newsletter. Visit fighttorepair.substack.com/ifixit to claim your premium membership!

A Twitter user by the name of ChuxMan had a problem: his washing machine stopped working, and he needed the machine’s firmware to fix it. Being an especially savvy washing machine owner living in Europe, ChuxMan knew that there are laws in the EU requiring companies to offer such information. He requested this information from the manufacturer—which promptly refused his request. They instead recommended he buy a whole new board assembly (which would be almost as expensive as the washing machine) rather than simply replace the failed component on his existing washing machine.

Not dissuaded, he turned to hacking. Using an Arduino programmed as ICSP and software called AVRDUDE, a tool for downloading and uploading firmware from AVR microcontrollers, he extracted the firmware from the microcontroller of his washing machine, allowing him to fix the software issue.

This scenario highlights one of the many issues complicating consumer repair of home appliances—and one of the ways that companies maintain control over devices that consumers own long after they make their purchase. In addition to withholding information needed to carry out repairs, manufacturers also refuse to sell replacement parts for their products, or they bundle parts and charge exorbitant prices for these repair bundles, thereby forcing consumers to pay for far more technology than they need to fix a problem.

After Legislation, We Need Robust Enforcement

The hacking community has always been creative in finding solutions to companies keeping them from controlling and modding the things they own. And in this case, ChuxMan was victorious. But the hackers are outgunned, and the fear of lawsuits has kept them from sharing their fixes. Often, to avoid lawsuits, hackers focus their efforts on low-value items, like Travis Goodspeed’s “junk hacking” of children’s toys.

In the case of ChuxMan, of course, the EU already has laws in place to force companies to share the kind of information he sought. But the company’s ability to refuse to distribute that information is a reminder that enforcement, not just legislation, is a crucial piece of the puzzle in making products more repairable. The ChuxMan incident is just the latest example of the link between software access and repair restrictions. Others are:

  1. Batterygate: Consumers caught Apple using software to purposely slow down older iPhones—strongly nudging users to purchase new models. Lawsuits followed.
  2. John Deere: Farmers have filed a class action lawsuit against the tractor giant for using software locks and measures to restrict the ability of farmers and independent repair shops to repair and maintain their equipment. The Department of Justice voiced its support for farmers’ argument this week.
  3. McFlurry machines: Software company Kytch uncovered that the reason McDonald’s ice cream machines are always broken is actually because the company that makes and repairs them, Taylor Company, runs them on software settings to ensure they break down quick—which makes them more money on repair services. Kytch is currently suing Taylor.

Advocates around the world are focused on passing Right to Repair legislation. But even once those laws have passed, manufacturers will keep throwing up barriers like the ones ChuxMan encountered—so we have to stay vigilant to hold them accountable.

Other News

  • How big tech re-wrote the nation’s first cell phone repair law. A report in Grist, by Maddie Stone, lays bear the machinations of Big Tech lobbyists in re-writing the nation’s first-ever electronics right to repair and the willingness of a compliant New York Governor to play along. According to the report, the passage of the Digital Fair Repair Act last June caught the tech industry off guard, prompting a full-court press on the newly seated New York Governor to win exemptions and changes that would water the bill down.
  • Where is EU taking repair in 2023? In 2022, the EU reached an agreement on its Battery Regulation, requiring manufacturers of most consumer products to make batteries replaceable and move away from disposable devices. They also finalized ecodesign measures for smartphones and tablets, which will require spare parts to be available for at least 7 years (and provide software and security updates for at least 5 years).
    • In 2023, the EU’s priorities include combating greenwashing, premature obsolescence, anti-repair software practices, and financial barriers to repair.
  • Ownership in a digital world: The Christian Science Monitor has a piece out on right to repair specifically focused on the changing definition of ownership in the digital age.