Think back to corn planting season. You are watching the monitor chart the seed population as GPS controls the tractor driving itself across the field.
Suddenly, the tractor swerves out of line. The monitor beeps angrily, then goes blank.
No worries, you think, speed-dialing your tech-savvy son who knows how to trouble-shoot the new equipment when it acts up.
Only this time, it’s not an easy fix. In fact, your entire system has been overtaken by a malware attack.
All of your data from previous years is gone.
While this scenario might seem like science fiction, precision agriculture and storing data in the cloud is the present, not the future.
Cyberattacks are a true danger in the digital era, and the agriculture sector is one of the greatest targets. That was one message portrayed at the Agriculture Threat Symposium, a free event held June 6 and 7 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Innovation Campus.
Even if you do not work directly on a farm, threats to agriculture affect each one of us, presenters said. We all buy food from the grocery store and rely on energy for our daily living, and therefore, we are all at risk should agriculture be attacked.
“Nothing is more critical to our nation’s security than our supply of food, feed and biofuel,” said Gene Kowel, special agent in charge at the FBI Omaha Field Office.
Safeguarding agriculture was the motivation for the symposium at UNL. More than 400 representatives from the agriculture industry and partnering organizations attended from 19 states. This was the first event of its kind, according to Kowel.
It’s no secret that agriculture is becoming more reliant on technology. In fact, Nebraska Farm Bureau (NEFB) president Mark McHargue announced at the conference the new partnership between NEFB and SpaceX’s Starlink. Farm, ranch and rural members will be able to access high-speed broadband internet on every acre across Nebraska.
Whether applying chemicals with precision technology, scouting fields with a drone, killing weeds with a laser or monitoring livestock with electronic tracking devices, technology is incorporated into every aspect of modern agriculture.
“Every piece of complex, modern farm machinery is connected (to the digital arena),” Kowel said, adding that connectivity can be translated into vulnerability.
As we have become more reliant on technology and store more data in the cloud, security threats are more pervasive. There is more potential for interference with the food supply than ever before, presenters said.
McHargue warned producers to be cognizant of the risk involved in modern agriculture.
“All of that technology comes with the ability from bad actors to manipulate data we have on the farm and the equipment we run on the farm,” McHargue said.
Gov. Jim Pillen is uniquely positioned to speak on behalf of agriculture as a veterinarian, hog producer and agricultural business leader. He shared a sobering description of how his business was hacked the week prior to the pandemic.
“Our entire genetic database shut down,” Pillen said. “We couldn’t make feed, we couldn’t do anything.”
Adversaries know that hijacking farm operations and food processors will halt production. By collecting agriculture data, these “bad actors” can become capable of controlling farm operations, as well as the market. Additionally, if they know what resources are needed or what supply issues are in the U.S., they can influence how farms function.
“A lot of damage can be done,” Kowel said.
The target does not have to be massive to make an impact. Mining data from a single farm, especially a large-scale operation, or manipulating equipment scattered throughout the country could potentially unsettle U.S. agriculture as a whole.
“Any disruption within the food chain is detrimental,” McHargue said.
The FBI is continually working to offset cyberattacks, counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism in agriculture. Kowel outlined four threats the FBI focuses on the most:
1. Hawking of business operations due to cyber activity, especially during planting and harvest seasons.
2. Theft by foreign adversaries of data, technology and innovations.
3. Control of industrial systems by adversaries, whether criminals, terrorists or other countries.
4. Infection of livestock through biowarfare or bioterrorism.
On the international level, the FBI is fighting what Kowel called the big four: China, Russia, North Korea and Iran.
Each of the three opening speakers at the Agriculture Threats Symposium mentioned the People’s Republic of China as a copious threat to our national security.
“China has been very public about their co-opting agriculture technology and data as a pivotal component of their long-term strategy,” said Kowel, adding that this could be the largest illegal transfer of wealth in the history of humankind.
The Nebraska Legislature reviewed a bill during the 2023 session that addressed threats to our communications system. Introduced by Sen. Eliot Bostar, LB 63 would prevent funding to a telecommunication company “using or providing any communications equipment or service deemed to pose a threat to national security.” Pillen summarized LB 63 as a removal of cheap, Chinese equipment immediately.
China was assumed to be part of the 2014 porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) outbreak in the U.S. The estimated death loss was 7 million pigs between April 2013 and April 2014, according to American Veterinary Medical Association.
Now an impending biological threat to hog production is African swine fever (ASF). While this disease has not yet been reported in the U.S., ASF is in the northern hemisphere. Pillen said he is concerned with border security to control foreign animal disease.
As disconcerting as the possibility of foreign biowarfare is, people must also be aware of internal threats. Our nation’s food security is being endangered by a modern-day Trojan horse, Pillen said, referring to animal activist groups. He reported that people employed by the Humane Society tried to get jobs in Columbus, Nebraska, “with the intention to come into our farms and hurt agriculture.”
“Their sole purpose is to attack food security and attack everything that goes into animal agriculture,” said Pillen.
The threats are equally covert for crop producers. McHargue said that farmers need to understand there may be something sitting in their equipment monitor, collecting data.
McHargue also expressed his concern about the ability of larger equipment manufacturers to see and collect data, giving certain companies access to data on 300 million acres.
Producers must be wary of whether their data is being protected by second- or third-party entities. You may trust your local cooperative with your information, but be aware of where are they sending it, presenters said. Protect yourself by learning how your partners—equipment manufacturers, cooperatives, grain handling facilities and other entities—are storing and protecting data.
Kowel reassured producers that agriculture data is privately owned, not government controlled. He also encouraged people in the agriculture sector to build a partnership with the FBI before an incident occurs. The FBI can help formulate a cyber security plan, also known as an incident response plan.
The FBI wants to be approachable; they desire to build relationships with those in agriculture, he said.
“We shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to the entities that are there to protect us,” McHargue said.
The Agriculture Threat Symposium intended to start the conversation about how all involved in the food chain can protect our most vulnerable resources: agriculture and food security.
“The degree to which we are able to have a secure food supply in our country is critical to our national security,” Kowel said.
Resources regarding agriculture threats and how to create an incident response plan can be found at www.fbi.gov or www.nefb.com.