High-Tech Security: Protect Your Farm From Cybersecurity Threats

Farmers should pay more attention to cybersecurity, says Raeth, managing partner of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based CatchMark Technologies, an information technology firm specializing in agriculture. ( Farm Journal )

Imagine this. An email pings in your inbox. Your bank is offering you a refund. You click the link without hesitation. A website that looks similar to the bank’s pops up. Next thing you know, all of the files in your network are encrypted and locked up. Next, your screen is taken over by a message demanding a $500 ransom to release the files. 

One of Brent Raeth’s clients experienced this nightmare just a few years ago. At the time, they were faced with two choices: Wipe all 30 of the company’s employee computers and install a backup from the day prior or pay the ransom. They chose to pay the ransom because the cost was less than the lost productivity. What would you have done? 

It seems like science fiction, but these kinds of incidents are happening in farm country. In fact, David Kohl, professor emeritus of agricultural finance at Virginia Tech University, says cyberattacks on technology could be a black swan facing agriculture in the next decade. 

“The more high-tech we become, the more vulnerable we become,” he says. “It’s not if it’s going to happen, it’s when it’s going to happen.” 

Farmers should pay more attention to cybersecurity, says Raeth, managing partner of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based CatchMark Technologies, an information technology firm specializing in agriculture. “Change happens usually because of one or two things: enlightenment or catastrophe and you don’t want to be the second one,” he says. “Unfortunately, a lot of the customers come to us looking for cybersecurity because they experienced catastrophe.” 

While many industries are at risks to cyberattacks, agriculture is unique. Precision agriculture took a highly mechanical, labor-intensive industry and connected it online, which dramatically increased the attack space available to threat actors, according to a 2018 report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Those attack areas are data theft, reputation loss, destruction of equipment and gaining an improper financial advantage over a competitor. 

From a financial standpoint, Raeth says, malicious actors can not only try to get you to pay them money, but also pose as a vendor and ask for payment. In addition, they could simply gain access to your bank account to take money. 

Agroterrorists, who have a political or personal motivation to shut down your farm, are another threat, Raeth says. “If you’re running robotic dairies or you were relying on computer systems in general to operate your dairy, that kind of espionage can happen,” he says. “People can hack your system and either destroy your data or render your systems unusable.” 

Don’t let cybersecurity threats paralyze you. Instead, be motivated to protect yourself, your employees and all of your digital assets. 

3 WAYS TO REDUCE YOUR CYBER RISKS

The thought of somebody on the internet taking your business hostage is both terrifying and overwhelming. Brent Raeth, managing partner of CatchMark Technologies, offers this advice to protect your farm.

1. Rethink User Credentialing. Be purposeful about who has access to what. Your employees should not use the same login credentials as you do, Raeth says. Everybody should have personalized credentials and permissions. Also, update your passwords on a quarterly basis.

2. Back Up Your Files. Have your major software programs on different computers that can back up to each other. Make sure those files are also backed up on the cloud.

3. Don’t Ignore Updates. While update notifications can be annoying, they are a critical component of vulnerability management. “Those patches come out to fix flaws in the operating system and too many times I go to organizations that have 75 patches waiting to be installed,” he says. “That is one of the biggest cybersecurity threat areas in my opinion.”

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