Fed up with the DRM in a General Electric refrigerator that pushed the owner to buy expensive manufacturer-approved replacement water filters, an anonymous hacker went to the trouble of buying a domain name and setting up a website at gefiltergate.com to pen a screed about appliance digital
rights restriction management (DRM) and how to bypass it.
The fridge in question required a GE RPWFE refrigerator water filter. It has an RFID chip, which the fridge uses to verify the authenticity of the part. The RPWFE filter costs much more than unapproved filters: about $50 compared to $13.
"Some ******* at GE thought it would be a good idea to include a ******* RFID DRM module in select refrigerators," the unidentified individual wrote, without using the asterisks we've included because online profanity filters are awful.
The Register contacted GE to ask about this, and the American giant's corporate communications director promptly replied that GE sold its appliance unit to China-based Haier in 2016, which continues to use its brand. Haier did not immediately respond to our inquiry.
The gefiltergate.com website, borrowing from a similar post on another website back in May, explains how to hack your Haier GE-brand fridge by affixing an RFID tag – stripped from a component for bypassing the water filter system – to the RFID sensor.
The GE website suggests that a water filter is a good idea to avoid exposure to unfiltered water and sediment, effectively offering its own commentary on public water infrastructure and government funding priorities. It recommends its RFID water filter because the chip chats with the fridge to report leaks, and will shut off the water supply if a leak is detected.
But the appliance doesn't require the RFID filter; fridge owners can use the bypass plug, and still get unfiltered water.
"Non-GE filters and counterfeit filters without this technology will not perform the same way in the event of a water leak," the company's website explains. "The refrigerator has the option to use a bypass plug should you not want to use a genuine GE Appliances water filter."
That makes it sound as if fridge owners can use water filters from another vendor but that's not the case – the bypass plug is just to silence the fridge display screen warnings coming from the filtration system's RFID sensor. "The ID chip on the filter detects when a wrong or non-genuine GE Appliance part is used," the GE Appliances website states. "If this happens, the dispenser will not work and the display may read 'Leak Detected.'"
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Hence the need to hack the fridge, which is something product owners evidently have been doing for years. The Amazon.com webpage for the bypass plug contains a string of user reviews indicating that customers only purchased the thing for its RFID chip. And complaints abound on discussion site Reddit.
In a phone interview with The Register, Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of The Repair Association, said product hacking of this sort is entirely legal, in America at least. The US Copyright Office, she said, included software-enabled appliance repair in its 2018 rulemaking [PDF], and patents are not an issue in this case. And the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act guarantees that consumers can use parts not from the original manufacturer.
Asked whether such practices generate enough ill-will to make them unprofitable, Gordon-Byrne said they can, pointing to Keurig's problems selling coffee makers with digital locks, but added that people have to be aware of the problem.
"It generates some ill will but not enough to offset the value of controlling the whole parts market," she said. "But it's a stupid, stupid thing to do. There's no reason to do this."
Right-to-repair legislation, which aims to ensure consumers have a legal right to repair products where product makers or laws deny that possibility, was being considered in about 20 US states last year. However, Gordon-Byrne said that progress has stalled due to the coronavirus outbreak. She expects repair bills will have to be reintroduced in January next year.
Current US Copyright Office exemptions, she said, should be renewed for 2021 and she expects to lobby for new exemptions for product categories where repairs that require breaking digital locks are still not allowed, like boats, medical equipment, and game consoles. ®