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Agriculture Giants Boost Cybersecurity to Shield Farm Data

Agriculture companies are building sturdier digital fences to fend off cyberattacks that industry officials say are increasingly targeting the sector.

Companies including Monsanto Co. and Deere & Co. are investing more in cybersecurity as the farming business grows more datacentric, with satellite-steered tractors and algorithm-driven planting services expanding across the U.S. Farm Belt, executives said at an industry event Thursday.

Seed and chemical companies have long guarded their technology with patents and security measures, but the expanding array of farm-level data collected by high-tech combines and other farm equipment in recent years has increased concerns that the sector will become a bigger target of hackers.

“As an industry, we’re still new to it,” said Robert Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer, in an interview at an annual farm-outlook forum run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Monsanto, which was targeted by hackers last year, is working to be “as protective of our data and our farmers’ data as we can be,” Mr. Fraley said. The St. Louis company also is consulting with government and cybersecurity experts as it shores up its defenses, but given the frequency and strength of cyberattacks, “we’re going to be living in a world where none of that is going to be 100% effective,” he said.

Monsanto in May confirmed a security breach in a computer server that left exposed some customers’ credit-card information and employee data, though the company said at that time that its investigation suggested the parties behind the breach weren’t trying to steal customer information. The company’s websites have also drawn attacks by hacker groups.

Such incursions carry weight for farmers considering a range of new farm-management services that often involve collecting information on soil content and past crop yields to generate planting recommendations, said Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

“Ag companies have already been hacked, and we tell people that,” Ms. Thatcher said during a panel discussion at the USDA event. “It will happen, so farmers have to know that.”

About 87% of farmers said they were unsure of what to do if a security breach occurred at a company holding their data, according to results of a Farm Bureau survey published in October, and only about one in 20 said that companies managing the information had outlined a security-breach plan.

So far, the agribusiness sector hasn’t been a prime target for hackers, said Corey Reed, a senior vice president with Deere, the world’s largest seller of farm equipment. “But there are people around the world waking up every day figuring out how to get into this data.”

Moline, Ill.-based Deere is seeking stronger policies to identify and deal with cyberthreats to the agriculture sector, Mr. Reed said during the panel discussion.

(Source – http://www.wsj.com/articles/agriculture-giants-boost-cybersecurity-to-shield-farm-data-1424380098)

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