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As agriculture gets more high-tech, is cybersecurity a concern?


Cowboys of another age watched out for rustlers, as ploughboys likewise kept dogs around to protect the hen house from weasels. But as the 21st century ends its second decade, agriculture has gone so high-tech that security is no longer a matter of lassos and blue tick hounds. Whether a small family farm, or a large-scale agricultural supplier, cybersecurity is a big part of business these days, and it pays to be informed.

According to a recent publication issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the agricultural community is particularly at risk for hacking, viruses and other theft due to the recent proliferation of software packages it uses.

“There has been an explosion of DSS (Decision Support Systems) and farm information management systems (FIMS), primarily mobile apps, designed to support farmers. Many have been built by start-ups or university extension programs which outsource their programming, and may not provide updates or patching. Privacy controls, user agreements, third party applications, and system update procedures are haphazard at best,” the agency said.

The issue of data privacy ranges from protecting information such as yield data, land prices, and herd health, to safe-guarding a system from viruses and preventing identity frauds. Like the 2014 Sony cyber-attack by foreign agents, the public release of private information pertaining to pricing and market data, or proprietary design, could have catastrophic impacts on the organization in question. Likewise, foreign access to unmanned aerial data could not only offer potential military or terrorism strikes, but could be used against American farmers in gaming the commodities market against them.

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Dale Meyerrose, now president of MeyerRose Group, explained in an interview with AgFunder News that opportunity abounds in the field of technical security. The first president-appointed, Senate-confirmed chief information offer for the Director of National Intelligence said there has been precious little to advance cybersecurity in the areas of access to services, personal privacy, proprietary information, and intellectual property.

“I am not seeing a lot happening. In part, because the idea of precision ag is a fairly new one,” he told AgFunder. “The business of using technology to help increase production, add value using fewer people while delivering more product — all fairly new things in the industry. Drones, which are one of the faster-growing ag technologies, have only really started happening within the last few months and years, not over the past decade or so.”

In the meantime, what can producers and ag-entrepreneurs do to stave off hackers, viruses, and all problems cyber?

Guard the farm

  • Secure mobile devices: Telephones aren’t just for talking any more, and farmers’ phones probably carry as much data as a desktop computer. From banking apps that allow for the instant transfer of funds from one account to another, to multiple emails that store a veritable library of communications relating to crops and business plans, a farm’s mobile devices need to be secure. Make sure these devices have the latest in security protections so as to avoid malware, viruses, or hacking.
  • Likewise, secure the farm’s Wi-Fi network: Given the rural nature of most American farms, computers might be hooked to a satellite internet provider and use modems inside the house. Make sure an encrypted code is in place so only authorized personnel can access it. The same goes for the router if multiple locations on the farm share the same service. Firewalls are series of programs that prevent outsiders from accessing data. Free systems can be found that can accommodate all sizes and types of organizations.
  • All data backed up: Farmers always need a contingency plan in the field and the same holds true in the office. Read up on what a “cloud system” is, and determine if that or a separate server would be best for your operation. A small family farm concerned about malware and viruses requires a different level of back-up than an ag-trucking company with dozens of employees and a hundred vendors, each of whose information is stored in spreadsheets. Properly backing up data will stave off the disaster which would be a virus-related crash that erases all of your employees’ health insurance records.
  • Keep workers informed: Depending on how your operation is set up, employees and vendors might be sharing your Wi-Fi or bringing laptop computers onto the site with regularity. Zip discs and other shared storage devices bring the potential of viruses as well as other security risks. Also, be aware that unscrupulous employees have been known to cause damage to companies out of spite or through fraudulent activities, and it’s up to the entire team to prevent that from happening to you.

Being aware of the issue is the first step, and just like regular equipment check-ups and physical farm security, a little prevention can go a long way to warding off information rustlers and e-mail weasels and keep your operation in check.

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