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Rethinking cloud-connected machines in times of international conflict

What if the cloud connection became a source for negatively impacting machines?

My car recently did an over-the-air update of its operating system, directly downloading new software from the manufacturer’s cloud-based mothership. This is great for me, as the car’s owner, since the manufacturer can address bugs remotely without me having to take the car to the dealer. But the war in Ukraine has also made me rethink the risks that come with connecting everyday machines to the cloud. What if the cloud connection became a source for negatively impacting machines?

Most any subscription-based software application will bar access or reduce functionality if the subscription fee is not paid. This seems logical.

The war in Ukraine has made me rethink how cloud connectivity might play out during global conflicts.

Western manufacturers could intentionally turn cars, tractors, airplanes, and other cloud-connected modern machines in Russia into useless lumps of steel. These manufacturers could send over-the-air updates that effectively immobilize their machines. For example, John Deere could, in theory, send an over-the-air update to its most modern tractors in Russia that makes these machines immobile — at least until hackers figured out a work-around.

This could move from a theoretical to a real question if Russia decides to nationalize Western assets that companies left behind. For example, Russia has threatened to nationalize aircraft left behind by Western countries. There is no doubt the Russians can seize factories, but a better question is whether the country can seize cloud-based equipment? I have no doubt that if Tesla sold cars in Russia, Elon Musk could absolutely brick the entire fleet.

Another question is whether Western companies could be forced to brick their cloud-connected equipment in Russia to comply with sanctions. Can the U.S. government compel U.S. companies to brick their cloud-based machines? This raises constitutional issues, as such a mandate might be considered taking without compensation (assuming there was no compensation from the government imposing the mandate).

Similarly, many devices and machines today also have the ability to use geo-fencing. DJI drones, for example, have geo-fencing that prevents them from operating in the no-fly zones near airports. If the Russian military is using DJI drones to scout Ukrainian positions, could DJI set up new geo-fences to prevent these drones from working in Ukrainian cities that are under Russian occupation?

Imagine too, that modern militaries may be resupplied with commercial trucks that bring fuel, food, and armaments for troops. If the Russian government used German trucks to resupply the front lines, could the German government require its truck manufacturers to geo-fence these machines to keep them out of Ukraine?

Cloud-based machines are here to stay, but let’s think through the implications and consequences of using these machines in times of international conflict. 

About the author: Todd Janzen is an attorney who is a frequent author and speaker on legal issues affecting agriculture. He writes a regular blog column on law and technology issues facing agriculture, which can be found at Janzen Ag Law Blog.

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