What’s at Steak: Cybersecurity and Precision Ag

By Josh Seidemann, VP of Policy, NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association

Imagine you play a role in an industry that, along with related sectors, contributes more than $1 trillion to the U.S. GDP each year. Imagine those related industries account for 11 percent of total U.S. employment, and consider the follow-on impacts of wages, taxes and purchasing power enabled for that labor market. Imagine the role of broadband enabled IoT, machine learning and unmanned aerial systems (UASs, or drones) in that industry is increasing and enabling more precise and efficient operations, creating larger yields with lower costs.

Now imagine these systems are hacked. Or compromised. Or subject to back-door Trojan horses that cripple their operations, either for malicious financial gain by individual bad actors or international efforts to manipulate trade negotiations.
It is time for cybersecurity to come to the farm.

A growing body of work is examining the need for rigorous attention to cybersecurity for the ag sector. Row crops, specialty crops and livestock are increasingly using smart ag technology. Intentional or unintentional interference can cause wide-reaching impacts. From the perspective of an individual farmer, faults with systems designed to maximize planting could reduce efficiencies at the outset, ultimately leading to smaller yields and reduced revenues. Or, compromises to systems designed to monitor and maintain livestock environments could generate adverse impacts on an entire herd; by way of example, disruptions to climate control systems designed to maintain optimal environments could make facilities too cold or too hot. Moreover, disruptions in systems intended to enable monitoring of herd health could lead either to false reports of herd disease or failures to report actual adverse conditions. These, too, could affect value and pricing.

The FBI has recognized these threats, even citing 18 U.S.C. §§ 1831 (Economic Espionage) and 1832 (Theft of Trade Secrets) as laws that could be violated through either the targeting or theft of a trade secrets. And, considering the highly proprietary data generated by precision ag equipment (soil, water, crop and other conditions), the implications for everything from crop sales to land prices to insurance rates could be at stake. Last fall, the U.S. District Court for Eastern Missouri handed down a grand jury indictment of a foreign national who worked for a U.S. company that estimates soil quality based on satellite imaging. Other instances of agricultural espionage include theft of modified seed samples and corn growing strategies. 

High-tech jobs in ag are often envisioned (and, rightly so) as focusing on hardware and equipment, or the development of algorithms and deep learning intended to spot variances from otherwise healthy norms in crop or livestock data. Both are true, and necessary, and expected to grow as precision agriculture is adopted increasingly by smaller farming operations. At the same time, however, this increased reliance on and use of IoT and broadband-enabled capabilities will demand focused attention to cybersecurity. Assessments that manufacturing, which represents 11% of GDP in 2019, warrants careful cybersecurity attention are correct. Ag, mining, utilities and construction, which account for 8.1% of GDP, warrant no less.

And if numbers like “trillion-dollar contributions” are hard to grasp, then imagine the impact of cybersecurity attacks on a small or medium farm and the family that owns it. It’s time to focus on cyber security for ag.

Imagine that.