Agriculture sector threatened by cyberattacks, study warns
Modern ‘smart’ agricultural machinery is vulnerable to malicious hackers, leaving global supply chains at risk, researchers have warned.
Since the Industrial Revolution, technological development has been linked to improved agricultural techniques, leading to an increase in the global food supply. Today, the idea of farms run by robots and intelligent machines is closer than ever. However, this progress could be hindered by the actions of hackers.
A new risk analysis by the University of Cambridge, published in Intelligence of natural machineswarns that the future use of artificial intelligence in agriculture carries substantial potential risks to farms, farmers and food security that are currently misunderstood and underestimated.
“The idea of intelligent machines running farms is not science fiction,” said Dr Asaf Tzachor, researcher behind the study, “but so far no one seems to have asked the question, ‘Are there any risks associated with rapid deployment of agricultural AI?'”
The document suggests that hackers could exploit flaws in agricultural equipment used to plant and harvest crops, such as automatic sprayers, drones and robotic harvesters. This fear is further reinforced by warnings from the UK government and the FBI of a growing threat of cyberattacks over the past year, as well as the possibility of Russian state-sponsored hackers targeting supply chains as a vital part of western national infrastructure.
Some of these threats have already materialized. Last year, JBS, one of the largest meat processing companies in the world, paid $11m (about £9m) in ransom for solve a cyberattack, while earlier this month the major American agricultural company AGCO was hit by a ransomware attack that affected production.
“There is a real risk that people all over the world will try to take control of these machines to get them to do what these people want, or just stop them from working,” said Chris Chavasse, co-founder of the agricultural company Muddy Machines. .
The Cambridge researchers have compiled a catalog of the risks to be considered in the responsible development of smart agriculture, as well as ways to deal with them. To guard against attackers who poison datasets or shut down sprayers, autonomous drones and robotic harvesters, the team suggests that “hackers” help companies uncover any security flaws during the development phase, so that systems can be protected from real hackers.
Such hacker is an individual known by the pseudonym “Sick Codes”, who recently revealed to the BBC that he had discovered weaknesses in the software of agricultural manufacturer John Deere, which he had reported. He said he found a way to access company information and machine data through websites and apps.
James Johnson, global director of information security at John Deere, said those found so far by Sick Codes did not “pose a threat to customers or their machines.”
“No company, including John Deere, is immune to vulnerabilities, but we are deeply committed and work tirelessly to protect our customers and the role they play in the global food supply chain,” said Johnson added.
Advanced machines, such as drones and sensors, are already being used in agriculture to gather information about crops and to support farmers’ decision-making by detecting diseases or insufficient irrigation, for example. These automated systems aim to make farming more efficient, reduce labor costs, optimize production and minimize losses and waste.
With an estimated two billion people suffering from food insecurity, artificial intelligence technologies and precision agriculture promise substantial benefits for food and nutrition security in the face of climate change and a growing global population. To realize this vision, farmers and technology companies must protect agricultural equipment from threats.
“AI is being hailed as the way to revolutionize agriculture,” said research co-author Dr Seán ÓhÉigeartaigh. “As we deploy this technology at scale, we need to take a close look at the potential risks and aim to mitigate them early in the technology design.
After all, hacking a tractor can upset the farmer and potentially hurt his individual profitability for a season. HGrowing a fleet of tractors could give a bad actor the power to affect crop yields in large areas of a country.
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