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Cyberattacks on the rise in ag industry

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The reliance on technology to keep businesses and people going has continued to increase. That dependence has opened up possible threats to agriculture.

In recent years it isn’t uncommon to hear of a cyberattack shutting down a cooperative, and other areas of the industry are vulnerable.

“There is an increasing proliferation of precision agriculture,” said Lewis Balfour, an intelligence analyst with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Springfield, Illinois. “Now, more than ever, we have an increased use of advanced technologies like GPS and drones to increase yields. That makes the agricultural sector a more lucrative and vulnerable target for cyber threat actors.”

Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, said they advise members on multiple issues regarding cybersecurity.

Domestic attacks seem to focus more on data, employee databases and personal information, he said, while foreign attackers are using ransomware.

Ransomware is a form of malware designed to encrypt files on a device, rendering these files unusable. The attackers then set a price, or ransom, to release the files and get the operating systems back online. These attacks can be especially effective during planting or harvest season, when a shutdown would be difficult to withstand, he said.

“That makes us a prime target,” Conner said. “People may say they can’t afford to be shut down, ‘so here’s the ransom, now let’s keep going.’”

Balfour said the FBI received close to 3,729 complaints of ransomware in 2021, with gross losses of more than $49 million. Fifty-two of those complaints were food and agricultural organizations.

However, Balfour said cyberattacks, particularly on companies, often go under-reported. Organizations don’t want to give the impression their technology is compromised and will try to handle it themselves.

The best way to handle previous or current attacks and prevent future attacks is to work directly with the authorities, said David Nanz, special agent in charge of the Springfield, Illinois, FBI office.

“We really want the private sector to let us know when these happen because there are a lot of resources we can bring to bear,” he said. “We have an understanding what is used by these mostly overseas actors to target our industries. The sooner we get involved, the better.”

Nanz said the attackers are primarily in Eastern Europe, with many from Russia and Ukraine prior to the ongoing war. They’ve found many of the perpetrators are in countries that have “challenging relationships” with law enforcement and extradition.

FBI Cyber Special Agent Greg Roth said the agency has seen many variants of ransomware and will have the resources to speed the process of regaining files. They also may be familiar with the perpetrators and what their motives are with the attack.

Much like the technology being used, the cyber threats are always evolving, Roth said, so keeping the experts in the loop will help protect others as well.

“There are usually consistencies between evolutions,” Roth said. “Things are always evolving but it’s not something impossible to track either.”

Conner said his organization is engaging with various groups on ways to help cooperatives boost their cybersecurity, but there is a learning curve.

“This is something that hasn’t captured a tremendous amount of resources in the past few years,” Conner said. “We are trying to help steer cooperatives on how to protect themselves and who to work with.”

No matter what kind of protection is used, there are still infiltration risks. George Grispos, a cybersecurity professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha said “spear phishing,” or sending emails with links or attachments that would give information on accessing the system, is one of the most common ways hackers are able to implement these attacks.

“That’s why cyber hygiene is really everybody’s responsibility in an organization,” Grispos said. “These phishing emails can be very, very deceptive and easily missed or interpreted to be legitimate in nature.”

He stressed not becoming complacent in watching for any possible threats. Pay special attention to these emails and never lose sight of the potential implications of a ransomware attack.

“Organizations can spend a lot of money on cybersecurity, but at the end of the day, human beings are the weakest link,” Grispos said.

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