Cybersecurity and Ag - 4

Precision Ag Companies Strive for Cybersecurity, but Hacking Threat Remains

Victoria G Myers
By  Victoria G. Myers , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
There is no such thing as an unhackable system if it's connected to the Internet to share data. (DTN/Progressive Farmer file photo)

Can U.S. farmers and ranchers take advantage of the benefits precision agriculture promises and still be assured their data is protected?

One well-known precision ag business, linking producers and their data with the rest of agriculture, is Trimble. Cory Buchs, director of Trimble's Connected Farm platform, understands concerns farmers have over companies' abilities to protect that data.

"Carbon credits, collecting data to help make better decisions ... all of these type things provide value. We can't let the value overwhelm the importance of having security around the collection process. Rather it's that very value that makes securing this data all the more important, especially as we interact with third parties and move data from devices, storage in the cloud, etc."

In upcoming weeks, DTN/Progressive Farmer is posting a special series called Cybersecurity and Ag to examine the threat cyberattackers pose to agriculture and explore what farmers, ranchers and agribusinesses can do to protect themselves against these high-tech criminals.

Buchs says there is a lot a company like Trimble can do to protect farmers' data, but there is also a need for all of agriculture to do a better job in the area of education about best technology practices on the farm.

"I think trends today tell us we will see more attempts at hacking," he says. "That should only increase a company's determination to stay ahead of those threats. It's kind of a race of sophistication on both sides. If you're a farmer, you have to ensure you only trust data to someone willing to invest in security protocols, processes, and tools that are current and will ensure the security of your data. We do that at Trimble, and most of the larger, more established companies in the ag space do as well."

Buchs cautions it's sometimes more of a risk to work with startup businesses, where there may be fewer resources available to invest in the areas of security protocol. He says companies should be transparent when asked by users, or potential users, about processes and procedures for security. There are also resources to help laypeople evaluate companies, including online sources to see companies that have been hacked.

Buchs notes the best companies have put into place tools for immediate intrusion detection and vulnerability scanning analytics. They rely on tools including multi-factor authentication, which he says is a proven way of protecting client data at the first line of attack. These protocols require more than one device to log in.

In Trimble's case, Buchs adds cybersecurity has benefitted from being part of a larger, global company with divisions outside of agriculture in the construction and geospatial industries, that have similar challenges to solve.

Reputable companies, Buchs stresses, make it a point to invest in security, and they have backups. "Given the value of a farm's data it's critical to have backups and to be able to recover data if something happens," he says.

So, what about recovery? Is it days, weeks? In the case of Trimble, Buchs says it's minutes to hours. "We operate in the cloud and have access readily. For us, recovery is not a long process."

THE CLOUD IS NOT A SHIELD

To be clear, having your data in the cloud is not a complete, or bulletproof, answer. Unfortunately, the cloud is hackable too.

"In general, anything is hackable that's connected to the internet," explains Trimble's Buchs. "That's the inherent risk when connecting to the cloud. But companies like Trimble have invested in ensuring security and ensuring safety of that traffic. Data from your Trimble devices and cloud is encrypted and behind a firewall, where it is monitored for intrusion. In addition, other sophisticated methods are applied to ensure its security. There are always risks, and I think for agriculture the threat has increased. We have to constantly have security at a high level. That isn't going to change."

When it comes to precision ag, it's not always the data criminals are after. Often, it's the technology itself that has the value, explains Buchs. He says hackers are often trying to steal trade secrets to sell outside of the U.S., in an effort to propel foreign companies to America's technology level, without investing the expense and time.

"In agriculture, there is a real-world incentive," Buchs continues. "Not only is there a lot of money involved, but we are talking about food -- a major requirement for life and a source of stability. These are high stakes, and we have to stay ahead of the threat on a constant basis."

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Editor's Note: This is the fourth story in our special Cybersecurity and Ag series. Next in the series: What steps do the pros take to protect their information from hackers?

You can find earlier stories in this series at:

-- Cybersecurity and Ag - 3

Is Uncle Sam Asleep on the Cybersecurity Job?

https://www.dtnpf.com/…

-- Cybersecurity and Ag - 2

Ag Corporations Prepare for Battle Against Hackers

https://www.dtnpf.com/…

-- Cybersecurity and Ag - 1

Cybercriminals Take Aim at America's Food Supply

https://www.dtnpf.com/…

Victoria Myers can be reached at vicki.myers@dtn.com

Follow her on Twitter @myersPF

Victoria Myers