Defeating Fridge DRM With Duct Tape And A Dremel

We love writing about DRM here at Hackaday. Because when we do, it usually means someone found a way to circumvent the forced restrictions laid upon by a vendor, limiting the use of a device we thought is ours once we bought it. The device in question this time: the water filter built into GE’s fridges that would normally allow its “owner” to pour a refreshing glass of cold water. Except the filter is equipped with an RFID tag and an expiration, which will eventually deny you that little luxury. And if that’s already a feature, you can bet it won’t just let you insert any arbitrary filter as replacement either.

Enraged by every single aspect of that, [Anonymous] made a website to vent the frustration, and ended up tearing the culprit apart and circumvent the problem, with a little help from someone who was in the same situation before. As it turns out, the fridge comes with a “bypass filter” that is just a piece of plastic to fit in place of the actual filter, to pour unfiltered, but still cold water. That bypass filter is also equipped with an RFID tag, so the reader will recognize it as a special-case filter, which luckily enough doesn’t have an expiration counter.

The general idea is to take out that bypass filter’s RFID tag and place it on a generic, way cheaper filter to trick the fridge into thinking it simply doesn’t have a filter in the first place, while still enjoying the filters actual functionality. However, this might not be the most stable solution if the tag isn’t placed in the exact position. Also, retrieving the tag in the first place proved tricky, and [Anonymous] initially ended up with nothing but the antenna pad, while the tag itself remained sturdily glued into the plastic piece.

Well, desperate times call for desperate measures — and the Dremel. Instead of taking out the RFID tag itself, [Anonymous] cut the entire part away from the bypass filter, which would of course not fit on a replacement filter anymore. But as it turns out, the compartment housing the reader had the right amount of space to simply tape the entire plastic piece with tag straight onto it, solving the problem once and for all.

No doubt, DRM is a complex and sensitive subject, from printer cartridges to tractors. Sure, it might be difficult to argue the filter circumvention falls under right to repair, but it’s likewise difficult to argue that GE is doing it all for the sake of the customer, considering the price premium — RFID tags aren’t really that expensive after all.

(Thanks for the tip, [Brendan Robert] and [Qes]!)

81 thoughts on “Defeating Fridge DRM With Duct Tape And A Dremel

  1. You know what though, I was stumbling around various info on the resin bead filter tech that’s in many things like filter jugs, the filters in humidifiers and some coffee makers, and it seemed to me that they probably used the same kind of ion exchange resins that you can regenerate! Yah, just run salt water through them and you should get more weeks of use. I’d probably try to back blast them first too, see if you can swoosh out any particulates they caught.

    1. Oh I should probably say that if you suspect nasties in your water like trace heavy metals or something that you’re hoping an activated carbon containing filter is gobbling up (Some come with that and softner resin stuff) then you probably want to continue regular replacement as the carbon will get depleted.

    2. I would not re-use water filters even if “regenerated” unless I also had a testing kit to prove that they don’t have legionnaire’s or other nasties accumulating in them. You can get really really sick.

      That’s probably the reason for the RFID tag in the first place. The company couldn’t control what sort of filter you put in, or that you replace the filter when its due, so they give you two options: no filter at all, or an approved filter replaced at forced intervals. Otherwise they’d be inundated with lawsuits from people who got sick by their own stupidity.

        1. Ah, is that why they’re offering to give you a replacement part without both an expiration date and filter media? So that they can continue getting your money that you will probably stop giving them at that point?

      1. Unless you live in Flint, MI, you may not need a filter. In the event you do, it’s likely just to remove the excessive minerals from the water supplied by the local treatment plant. This usually makes for stinky ice and hard water. It also leaves chalky deposits after the water dries up. If you have well water, a refrigerator mechanical filter isn’t going to cut it–no amount of proprietary bs is going to clean that. The deionizer resin will deplete *very* quickly and the carbon only traps very small organic particles. Anything larger or metallic, forget it. In that case you would spend the money to install a household RO/DI unit to strip away 90% of the bad water all together. If you have never looked into what a Reverse Osmosis/Deionizer does, take a trip to wikipedia. Now, this fridge filter? This was a way for them to force you to purchase their proprietary filter, locking out third party manufacturers and universal refillable filter kits. They could give two farts less about your health. They care about their wallets.

        1. Ugh, slightly harsh comment, but you’re right. Filters only do so much. We shouldn’t place more faith in them than they’re due.

          Hack it, take responsibility for yourself, and cut out any chance of refrigerator as a service.

        2. Why not come visit Bucks County, Pennsylvania. We have Hexavalent Chromium in our water. remember Erin Brockovitch? Yeah that stuff, just at a lower level. So pretty much everyone i know, drinks bottled water.

      2. Legionella only grow in water that is roughly room temperature or higher. (20C+) I would still concur with the overall recommendation that the filter be replaced regularly (with any appropriate filter, not necessarily an OEM one, of course.)

        1. Low temperatures (like ice cubes and soft ice, but maybe also very cold water?) helps legionella to get past the defense systems of the body. Indeed, that’s only an issue when the water already contains legionella before you cool it down but extra care must be teken when cold dringks or food is involved.

          1. The water pipes leading up tho the fridge will warm to room temperature when water is not actively drawn through it. The filter then accumulates with the bacteria growing in the pipes.

        2. It goes dormant below 20 C but doesn’t go away. The thing is, the water pipe leading up to your fridge regularly warms up to room temperature when water is not actively drawn through it, so the legionella bacteria that end up there can multiply. The filter then traps them, and it starts to accumulate the bacteria when you don’t change the filter out regularly.

  2. The author of this article even states that he later discovered (after destroying his fridge) that this isn’t a real lockout, it’s just an annoying warning. We all hate DRM, this isn’t DRM. It’s a just someone who went HAM on their fridge without looking too closely at it first.

    From the first paragraph of the article: (UPDATE:After this article has made it around a couple people let me know that the fridge would, in fact, continue to work just would roll over to a days-past mode. That said I can now buy 15$ filters on Amazon vs 50$ DRM filters. Oh and no more triangle of doom on my fridge HMI)

    1. i mean, if you can’t buy an off the shelf filter and slot it in, i’d classify it as DRM.
      the fact that it’s poorly implemented doesn’t stop it from being so.

    2. That made me cringe a little. Especially the later admission that having googled it you can just swap back and forth between two filters (the benefit is it’ll dry up and prevent a biofilm between uses).

      But this idiot didn’t even manage to find that out before he took the Dremel out.

      It’s not that I have a problem what he does with his fridge, or think that being able to use a third party tag isn’t great.

      It’s that this is just poor work or at best very amateur.

      As an amateur he probably didn’t have the requisite tools but I’d like to see what was actually on the tags (and of course what kind are they).

      Stick a Tag on a third party filter and you have yourself a business!

    3. This is 100% DRM. The limitations of your rights to the filtration are relaxed. They allow you to continue using the water, albeit with a very nasty warning about the fact that you are drinking gross water. Since they sell proprietary filters that use RFID to communicate with the refrigerator, this means it comes with DRM. Just because it doesn’t restrict the movement of water from the water spout doesn’t mean it isn’t really DRM. Not all forms of DRM stop the use of the product. It’s intent here was to make sure you know you can’t just install a generic filter, you know, because it might not be all that good. Right.

      1. So any communication from a company is DRM, even if there is no management of your digital rights?

        I’m not sure if this is just a feature of the interent or a feature of the upcoming generation that they don’t seem to be able to say, “that’s annoying”, without desparately trying to relabel it as something else.

        Yes GE telling you you ought to replace your filter once it’s worn out is annoying, but no it’s not DRM.

  3. My greatest frustration is the fact that GE sells the exact same filters without the RFID at a huge price reduction due to outside competition. I have the same fridge and will not endorse this product just because of this. Rather sad since otherwise it is a good product.

    1. The only time I would support drm on a consumable product is if using third party products actually could in fact cause harm to the product or people. At the moment I do not know of a situation where that has been the case, but if it were the case that would be the only time I would be supportive of drm on it.

      1. Not replacing the filter regularly can make you really really sick.'_disease
        >No vaccine is available.[7] Prevention depends on good maintenance of water systems.
        >The fatality rate of Legionnaires’ disease has ranged from 5–30% during various outbreaks
        >Hospital-acquired Legionella pneumonia has a fatality rate of 28%, and the principal source of infection in such cases is the drinking-water distribution system.

        1. Point being that a water filter turns against its purpose if you let a biofilm accumulate on it, because it has a huge surface area that traps bacteria and other stuff coming through the pipes. A straight tap is not such a huge problem because it’s continuously washed by fresh water.

          So if you use third party filters that don’t keep track of the last replacement, most people would just forget or neglect changing the filter out, and as a result GE would have a huge PR disaster on their hands because people are going to blame them first. They’re going to go after the company that sold them the fridge that made them ill, even though it was because of their own stupidity, and there’s no way GE is going to come out of it smelling like roses whether they take responsibility or not. The damage is done.

          1. That said, the filters shouldn’t cost $50 if the same thing sans the tag is available for $15 – but that is perfectly understandable as well.

            When the company bean counters hear that you have to buy a particular approved filter to make the red triangles and warnings go away, they immediately get $$$ flashing up their eyes. It happens by a force of nature.

          2. Or, you know, put a little button on the panel that says reset water filter…and you be an adult about it. They did this on purpose to lock out third parties. It allows them to keep the price high and nag you that you are drinking gross water. Just put the bypass in and call it a day.

          3. If they put in a reset button, people would press it instead of replacing the filter, get sick and sue GE again. “I thought reset means it cleans the filter! I wanna million dollars!”

        2. Legionnaire is not really a problem in this case as it runs from cold water and is stored in fridge.
          Most contamination is cross contamination from hot water system where the bacteria lives and prosper.

          In fact not washing hand before changing the filter is where the issue is, it has been proved with filter based jugs that where found contaminated with fecal bacterias in households.

          1. Legionnaire is always a problem where water can stay stagnant for long periods of time and biofilms can grow. The optimum range for the bacteria is between 20-50 C but that doesn’t mean it won’t infest your water filter. It even grows in ice-makers.

        3. I have a Xiaomi Mijia Air Purifier with DRM on the filter, it counts hours not how much is filtered, even though it could since it knows how much is filtered from the sensors. In Sweden the air is farily clean so after 800 hours the filter shut down while still being fairly clean. Reset gave me about 100 hours more, then it refuses to work, all hacks removing the tag just gives me “Please install original filter”.

          New filter is $60 here and 3+ month delivery time.
          The annoying thing is it just shuts down the air quality sensor, can still run it in manual mode.
          So they’re just screwing with me because they can, I hate DRM in all products.

      2. My toothbrush wants me to use heads with RFID so it can track how long they’ve been in use and ensure I change them regularly.
        “OMG WTF DRM oh noes evil company…”
        No, actually I’m kinda glad, and decided to pay the extra to get the “real” heads. I’m really bad at bothering to replace my toothbrush unless it looks really and, but actually a toothbrush degrades significantly before it takes visible (to the naked eye) damage.
        So yeah, “DRM” FTW. This is the kind of situation where it’s not a bad idea to have an RFID tag.

  4. I feed my fridge from a reverse osmosis system with a UV sanitizer as I am on well water but most municipal water is perfectly safe for making ice (maybe not Flint, Michigan though) Built in fridge filters seem to just be particulate filters sometime with a little activated carbon that does very little. They almost certainly won’t remove lead or bacterial contamination. In general they are completely pointless and just a way for the manufacturers to squeeze out more profit.

  5. I’m confused as to why you wouldn’t just put the bypass in, then use a third party filter that lives behind the fridge. We had a Home Depot-acquired canister filter on our Maytag which worked just great. That fridge didn’t have a built-in, but how is a fridge with a filter bypass any different?

    1. i did the same thing years ago when my fridge said i needed to replace my filter and found it was $35. Just pulled the in hose and the out hose to the filter connected them together and mounted a in line filter in the garage that was going to my ice maker that was there from my old fridge.

  6. Interesting –

    First, that does not appear to be a GE bypass, maybe LG?

    Second, I sell appliances for Home Depot, and I have 30 or so refrigerators on the floor that require filters, and none of the filters are installed in any of the displays, and most of the displays are showing alerts that it is time to replace the filter. It’s a 6 month timer that counts down whether there is a filter in place or not. Some brands and models will stop dispensing water unless the alarm is reset, but that’s all.

    There are several filters that engage electronics, but I am not aware of any GE models.

    1. Yes. I bought a ‘GE’ dishwasher a year ago. Actually, I bought a Haier, whoever the hell that is, and have been disgusted by the poor quality. They got one sale off their trick from me, but I won’t buy either brand any longer. Good riddance. And I say this as a vacuum tube guy who loves antique GE tubes. They have fallen so far and sold their IP soul for temporary gain.

        1. “Limiting the use of a device we thought is ours once we bought it”

          Seriously? Stop playing victim, yallknew what the agreement was when you bought the fridge nobody was tricked into buying anything and the whole “I thought it was mine” is getting a little repetitive.

      1. Bets on how long till you have to buy a fridge with an internet connection for “demand management” on the electric grid.

        Better stock up on frozen peas as well. Adds a little more thermal mass to keep it from melting when the power company can’t give you power.

          1. Same wires, same generators. Demand management is the 21st century version of rolling blackouts when the demand exceeds the supply and the power companies can’t demand the sun to shine more or the wind to blow faster.

            The reason why it will be universally implemented is because batteries are just too damn expensive. You can easily add 20-50 cents to the price of a kWh and it still just about breaks even.

          2. Tesla powerwall is $400 per kWh and can be recharged 5000 times, so that’s 8 cents/kWh. Should be less for industrial scale setups.

            And demand management doesn’t have to be enforced. A power company can provide a financial stimulus, for instance by charging spot price for electricity, so you can decide yourself whether it’s a good time to consume or produce.

            And even if it’s enforced, they can probably meet their goals by focusing on EV chargers rather than a puny refrigerator.

    1. “Remind me not to buy any fridge with a filter.”

      Actually, I wish my fridge had a filter,
      one that would catch the dust instead of it getting stuck between the condenser coils underneath it!

      1. My theory says; Paint the plastic grille thing under the door with aquadag so it doesn’t charge up the dust so it’s attracted to the nice grounded metal.

        Alternatively, delete as applicable… Honey, if I had a 3dprinter/laser-cutter/bandsaw/cnc-router I could make a thing to stop the dust getting in there, and I also need a new shop-vac/air-compressor/pressure-washer to help clean it out.

        1. “Alternatively, delete as applicable… Honey, if I had a 3dprinter/laser-cutter/bandsaw/cnc-router I could make a thing to stop the dust getting in there, and I also need a new shop-vac/air-compressor/pressure-washer to help clean it out.”

          Good advice, she knows I need new tools just as much as she needs new quilting devices!

    1. There’s no actual DRM going on. DRM is an Intellectual Property (IP) issue, related to copyrights, and this case is just another example of an age-old trick of vendor lock-in by adding a technical widget that acts as a lock and key to prevent the use of third party replacements.

      1. So we’re still getting f’ed in the a.. by the free market and the invisible hand isn’t giving us a reach around. Don’t get me wrong I’m all for capitalism but, come on, treat customers with respect, not like a drunk to be rolled.

        1. The “invisible hand of the free market” is a theory that depends on rational and informed agents.

          The problem is rather that people don’t read the small print, and then act surprised when the thing they didn’t research turns out to be something they didn’t want.

          1. “The problem is rather that people don’t read the small print, and then act surprised when the thing they didn’t research turns out to be something they didn’t want.”

            Good one!
            (it describes some of my actions (too) accurately)

          2. Yeah, except the “fine print” is isn’t accessible until you’ve bought the darned thing. Or else it is “freely available” if you know where to look and aren’t afraind of leopards:

            From “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”:

            “But the plans were on display…”
            “On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
            “That’s the display department.”
            “With a flashlight.”
            “Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
            “So had the stairs.”
            “But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
            “Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.”


          3. >except the “fine print” is isn’t accessible until you’ve bought the darned thing

            Bullcrap. The information must be available.

            “The FTC Act prohibits unfair or deceptive advertising in any medium. That is, advertising must tell the truth and not mislead consumers. A claim can be misleading if relevant information is left out or if the claim implies something that is not true.”

            If you think they’ve withheld you the information that their filters are RFID tagged and must be replaced with the same, go ahead and sue them.

            >Consumer Bill of Rights refers to group of consumer rights which was introduced by the U.S. President, John F. Kennedy in 1962.
            >4. The right to be informed- This right states that businesses should always provide consumers with sufficient information to make informed product choices. Product information provided by a business should always be complete and truthful.

            If you find a company or product in violation to these rights, do point it out to the FTC.

        2. Besides, it would be the exact same story even if there wasn’t any RFID chips involved.

          Why? Because they need some means to identify the filter from the dummy, and to recognize that a new filter is inserted instead of just the same one put back in. The fridge has a sanity check that makes you actually replace the filter instead of just resetting the counter, which is the whole point of it.

          That means they need to have some sort of master identifier between dummy and filter, and a running unique identifier in the filter to tell when it has been replaced by a fresh one. It could even be a series of mechanical notches that encode a long binary number that runs up or down.

          Since there is no standard for doing that, any way you try to implement it will be incompatible with 3rd party parts that do not implement any identifiers whatsoever.

        3. > treat customers with respect, not like a drunk to be rolled.

          If most customers are willingly drunk, then the businesses that roll them make more profit and out-compete the businesses that don’t. The “respectful” businesses simply run out of money and disappear.

          That is why the old phrase: caveat emptor – buyer beware. You can’t act all irresponsible as a consumer and the complain how everyone’s stealing your money and making an ass out of you. You do that to yourself, collectively speaking.

  7. +1

    We were doing this before these fancy 21st century fridges had built in filters.

    I was going to post the same here. In this guy’s case, put in the dummy filter and let the DRM live happily ignorant. Replace the pre-filter in the back, side or top where people can’t see it.

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