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Agriculture has online threats (Editorial)

by | Oct 15, 2021

A pair of FBI agents joined an online symposium held by the Eastern Shore Entrepreneurship Center in April to warn agriculturists in the region: The farming sector is as vulnerable to hacking and new-age criminality as any other industry in the United States.
Chinese nationals, for instance, had been caught stealing experimental seeds from Iowan fields — and agriculture, the FBI said, was an attractive target for cyber-theft.
If a thief can paralyze the digital operations of a business in the food industry to ransom its data, they have a higher likelihood of success. (These attacks are frequently called “ransomware”.)
“If you attack an industry that’s critical to the safety and livelihood of society, (businesses) are more likely to pay the ransom,” David Ring, chief of the FBI’s cyber division, said during the April 14 symposium.
Hopefully those warnings were heeded, both in Delmarva and across the country, because the attacks have not abated.
A month after the symposium, cyber criminals idled several packing plants at JBS, the world’s largest beef company and producer of roughly a quarter of the U.S. beef market. This month, Russian hackers attacked an Iowa grain cooperative, shuttering computer networks that managed its supply chains and feeding schedules for millions of livestock. They demanded nearly $6 million to relinquish their grip on the sytem.
These attacks seem more common, brazen and ambitious than ever before. Although the FBI urges companies not to pay ransoms, many simply do the math and reach the same conclusion as the hackers — it’s probably cheaper to pay them than to fight them. (JBS eventually wired its victimizers $11 million.)
This, of course, just encourages hackers, who, emboldened, move on to bigger and more consequential targets such as New Cooperative, the alliance of grain farmers based in Fort Dodge, Iowa.
Fortunately, New Cooperative, which sells corn and soy products, was able to shimmy around the threat, according to the Washington Post. They took their computer networks offline, shuttered software that managed irrigation and fertilization on fields, and farmers have reacquainted themselves with paper ticketing to log their grain hauls.
The cooperative’s attackers, a Russian group calling itself BlackMatter, threatened to leak reams of data, including invoices, research and computer code to the co-op’s proprietary soil-mapping technology.
It’s a new and chilling trend, and U.S. businesses appear limited in their ability to prevent these attacks.
The FBI advises small businesses, such as farms with retail operations, to take steps to prevent incursions, such as paying close attention to email accounts and reporting suspicious behavior.
Through e-mail, hackers often imitate senior employees or trusted vendors to demand payments or get access to a business’s computer network.
But farmers should be equally concerned about their partners — dairy cooperatives, poultry integrators, nurseries and so on — all of which need to reexamine their security if they haven’t already. Taking the threat seriously would be a substantive start. Data from New Cooperative was eventually leaked, revealing computer passwords belonging to the company’s 120 employees.
At least 10 used the password, “chicken1,” according to ZDNet, a business technology news website. In 2021, that’s palm-to-forehead territory.
The FBI’s website includes comprehensive advice on preventing ransomware attacks.
Businesses across the Delmarva farming industry, large and small, should prioritize reading it or risk the obvious.

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