New Cybersecurity Project Could Be Critical in Protecting Agriculture

Dr. Richard Hanson, DSU

Technology has greatly impacted many industries we heavily rely on, including agriculture. The evolution of precision ag allows producers to collect and analyze data to effectively use crop inputs and maximize their harvests. But along with the benefits come cybersecurity risks.

Many of us have already seen the implications of cyber attacks within agriculture. Cooperatives being ransomed for millions of dollars. Hackers changing the chemical balance inside a water plant. Incidences like these are why South Dakota State University (SDSU) has partnered with Dakota State University (DSU) to start a project called CyberAg.

“The food and agriculture sector is a critical national infrastructure,” said Dr. Richard Hanson, DSU Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. “That is why we have become very concerned about protecting the data that drives precision agriculture and the range of potential cyber vulnerabilities within agriculture and food production.”

Karla Trautman, SDSU Extension

To kick off this initiative, SDSU and DSU put together House Bill 1092. It was a one-time ask for $1.25 million to fund a cyber ag symposium to identify needs, research projects to create solutions, and more. The bill went through the 2022 legislative process and passed.

“We have seen things already happening in the marketplace that ultimately impact all of us as consumers and producers,” said Karla Trautman, Director of SDSU Extension. “We want to get on the front-end of minimizing that impact to all. Find solutions to prevent these cybersecurity threats from occurring.”

Now that it is funded, the CyberAg project will help in three major ways.

1. Research to find solutions.

As stated above, the project’s first step is a national cyber ag symposium.

“This symposium would bring together cyber industry experts, university experts, and producers so we can share concerns, identify vulnerabilities, build relationships, perhaps share expertise and start to build a series of interventions,” said Dr. Hanson.

Once concerns are identified, SDSU and DSU will have the framework to start collaborative research projects to create solutions.

“We will start to put the experts to work researching solutions to mitigate the risk,” said Trautman. “What we’re hoping to gain from the research is identifying licensable technologies that we can hit the marketplace with.”

2. Improvements to precision ag education.

The findings from the symposium and research will also impact what happens in the classroom at SDSU.

“There will certainly be a component of this initiative woven into the academic portion of our Precision Agriculture major at SDSU,” Trautman said. “We want our students to learn about the practices, knowledge, and research we’re finding in the field.”

Students at SDSU majoring in Precision Agriculture will be directly impacted by the Cyber Ag Project.

3. Solutions for producers to implement.

Finally, and most importantly, the initiative will provide outreach to put research findings in place and help producers protect themselves from cyber risks.

“It’s not only about working with our producers to identify needs and getting them connected with experts but teaching them to mitigate risks and helping them implement security measures,” Trautman said. “So a key part of this project will be identifying how we do that and then begin doing it. We want to make sure a farmer has confidence that the data they are collecting is secure.”

Take measures to protect yourself now.

As a producer, you can be doing things now to protect your operation against cyber threats.

“Be aware that everything you put into a cyber network is out there forever,” Dr. Hanson said. “Take caution in how you build your networks and how you protect those networks. And consider investing in encryption.”

Trautman advises producers to “Know who has access to your data. Understand how your equipment works so you can easily recognize if something is not quite right. If your data is incorporated into an agreement, have a full understanding of what that agreement means.”