Is your farm vulnerable to cyber security attacks? – InForum

MADISON, SD — As precision agriculture technology becomes more advanced, how do farmers keep their equipment and records safe from cyber security breaches?

Students and researchers at Dakota State University in Madison, South Dakota, can get into the seat of the tractor and conduct research around cybersecurity in farm equipment in their Tractor Cybersecurity Lab on campus.

“The security side of things is just trying to make sure that all of our devices, whether it’s smart tractors or any kind of smart tablets or anything that farmers use, are safe and secure and don’t leak any information that they don’t should do it. don’t be,” said Austin O’Brien, associate professor of computer science and master’s in computer science coordinator at Dakota State University.


Austin O’Brien, Associate Professor of Computer Science and Coordinator of the Master of Computer Science at Dakota State University.

Ariana Schumacher / Agweek

They are also looking at the impact of artificial intelligence.

“We’re working on different projects about how to use artificial intelligence in different aspects, whether it’s collecting data so that farmers can make better decisions, farmers the same thing, or it can also have higher yields, things of this nature and then autonomous self-driving. tractors, things like that,” O’Brien said.

The purpose of this research is to ensure that our farm equipment is safe. They have joined forces with various industry partners including AI Sweden, South Dakota State University and Case IH New Holland.

“We want to make sure that really unfortunate agents, you know, cyber hackers, attackers or whoever, are not able to gather information from these devices,” O’Brien explained. “Also so that they don’t go in and then take control of any of them or even put bad information inside them.”


Case New Holland is one of Dakota State University’s cybersecurity program partners.

Ariana Schumacher / Agweek

The research setting is unique and makes students and researchers feel like they are actually on the farm.

“We kind of have a setup, I would say almost a little bit more for fun. We have the driver’s seat and everything, so there’s a simulator that’s attached to it, which is kind of like driving a tractor,” O’Brien said.

But the lab is more than fun.

“Perhaps the most important part is the things we don’t show,” explained O’Brien. “We’re working with CNH and they have proprietary hardware, so we’re not allowed to show the actual hardware, but it’s more of a smaller device that we have in our labs so we have a good idea of ​​what kind. the hardware we’re working with, where the inputs and outputs are, and what kind of power it has.”

Those involved in the project are excited to be working on something that can have an impact on South Dakota’s largest industry: agriculture.

“The students really like the idea that we were able to research and work on something that actually has a real impact on the South Dakota economy,” O’Brien said.

Farmers and ranchers in the U.S. have quickly adopted technology in their operations. The 2022 U.S. Census of Agriculture said the percentage of farms with Internet access continues to rise, now reaching about 79 percent. The 2022 Ag Census was the first to list the adoption of precision agriculture as a farm characteristic and estimated that less than 12% of farms were using the technologies. However, among the highest-grossing farms—those selling more than $1 million in agricultural products—use of precision agriculture technology was about 39 percent.

Adoption was faster in row crops. A February 2023 USDA study, “Precision Agriculture in the Digital Age: Recent Adoption on U.S. Farms,” ​​said farmers were using automated steering and guidance systems on more than 50 percent of U.S. acreage planted to corn, soybeans , winter wheat, cotton, rice and sorghum. This is an increase from about 10% in the early 2000s.

The use of precision agriculture technologies in row crops has the potential to reduce inputs and environmental footprint through more precise seed and fertilizer placement and more precise field coverage with less overlap due to guidance systems. Yield monitors can provide valuable information about field performance and resource allocation. Remote sensing and autonomous equipment could provide valuable information or efficiency without increasing manpower.

Factors preventing farmers from adopting the technologies include cost and technical knowledge. But another risk factor for many is whether the data and connection to the farm can be protected.

While agricultural and food companies have faced disruptive and dangerous technology hacks, cybersecurity breaches in agricultural equipment have yet to occur in the United States.

“We haven’t seen anything like that happen, but we always want to stay one step ahead of that, for sure,” O’Brien said. “We know that with the conflict in Ukraine, we’ve seen Russia basically carry out different types of attacks on different infrastructure, so we want to make sure our infrastructure is one step ahead of that.”


Mark Spanier, associate professor and interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Dakota State University.

Ariana Schumacher / Agweek

Cybersecurity professionals can somewhat determine the peak times that attackers may be looking to target farm equipment.

“Which is different from some areas of cybersecurity,” said Mark Spanier, associate professor and interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Dakota State University. “In agriculture, you know someone wants to attack like harvest time because they can put their best effort into that short window of time. If they can be disruptive in that window of time, they can create all kinds of havoc.”

But having more specific target attack times can also be a challenge.

“So it’s an interesting balance between ‘I know when someone is likely to attack, so I can go all out’, but it also means that your attacker can go all out at that very specific time as well, so it creates a dynamic interesting,” said Spanier.

And there are ways farmers can be proactive in protecting their equipment technology.

“The on-board computer systems they’re going to have on their pieces of equipment, making sure they’re up to date and with the current specifications of things, just like with anything you want to make sure things are up to date, so if a there was a known vulnerability that came out, which is then updated with the patches it needs to have,” said Spanier.


There are ways farmers can be proactive in protecting their equipment technology.

Ariana Schumacher / Agweek

“Be aware of what you’re doing, where you’re leaving your data, where your data is, so if you’re uploading data to the internet, make sure you know exactly where you’re uploading,” O’Brien said. Maybe these are specific websites if you work with different companies or businesses. You just need to know that you are working directly with them and maybe not through various other services.”

But overall, this research is meant to serve as a prevention tool.

“That kind of concern, as long as it’s there, just know that we’re actively working on things, so we don’t want to paint it as a sad situation, we want to stay one step ahead,” O’Brien said. . “We haven’t seen any big problems, but that’s because people are actively working to stay ahead.”