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The feds warn that hackers could hold Midwestern harvests hostage with ransomware

 Agriculture increasingly relies on things that are hackable, like the monitors in this combine.
Peggy Lowe
/
Harvest Public Media
Agriculture increasingly relies on things that are hackable, like the monitors in this combine.

Ever fewer chores get done on a farm or ranch without some connection to the internet.

Farmers use data, artificial intelligence and GPS to make decisions about where and when to water or fertilize their crops, the best time to inoculate their livestock or how to manage their feed.

That use of technology has helped propel the U.S. to the top of the world’s agriculture exporters, but it’s also left farms increasingly vulnerable to cyberattacks.

“Cyber criminals know this,” Omaha-based FBI Special Agent Eugene Kowel said. “They’re very savvy, and they know that hacking into U.S. agriculture can yield a big payday.”

The stakes rise even higher during fall’s harvest season, when farmers come under pressure to get crops out of fields quickly and can be extorted to pay a ransom if it means getting back to work.

Hackers seize on that time crunch. Kowel couldn’t talk about any current threats, but he said cyber attacks hit six grain companies last year, including in the Iowa and Nebraska region.

“We do believe the cooperatives were targeted,” he said. “And we did assess that the attacks were purposely launched to coincide with the harvest season.”

Even outside of harvest, Kowel said cybercriminals are constantly looking for vulnerabilities to extort farmers for money, steal their information or take control of their operations.

George Grispos teaches cybersecurity at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and runs research that tests agricultural machinery for weak spots. He said risks will only grow as technology advances and the industry embraces things like precision agriculture and autonomous tractors.

“Agricultural equipment was not designed with security in mind,” Grispos said. “Right now, there’s nothing stopping someone from hijacking a piece of machinery, steering it, and putting it somewhere it shouldn’t be — like the middle of a road.”

Grispos said ransomware has been the most common attack — where criminals gain access to a system when unwitting users visit compromised websites or click on bad attachments in emails.

The ransomware blocks users from accessing their system until they’ve made payments to the criminals.

Grispos said farmers need to learn better “cyber hygiene” by updating software, establishing strong passwords and ignoring suspicious messages.

Don Roose — who founded U.S. Commodities, a commodity management firm in Des Moines, Iowa — said he’s seen companies become more aware of their cybersecurity practices in the wake of ransomware incidents.

They’ve established protocols for handling attacks and have contingency plans in place to get back to operation.

“Going forward, I think those types of arrangements are going to be more mandatory,” Roose said. “There’ll be government regulations and regulators will make sure you have a tight security program.”

At stake: the entire food supply chain.

“It wouldn’t take long for a severe disruption to our food supply to affect everyone,” Kowel said. “The ramifications of cyber intrusions in the agricultural sphere affects everybody.”

Elizabeth Rembert covers agriculture, food systems and rural issues for Harvest Public Media. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @EKRembert.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM

Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Elizabeth Rembert