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Enhancing cybersecurity for today’s beef operations

Jaclyn Krymowski for Progressive Cattle Published on 25 April 2022

“Cyberattack” and “cybersecurity” are terms that are no strangers to the corporate world. But more recently, they’ve become more familiar – sometimes with fear – in agriculture and food processing sectors.

Discussions about cybersecurity and data protection are now hot topics for many ranchers, feeders and processors, not only in light of the infamous JBS cyberattack in May of 2021 but also as more information is shared in the digital sphere.

“What makes it so difficult in agriculture is: It’s not just data on a computer,” says Tiffany Drape, assistant professor at Virginia Tech who recently co-authored a USDA-funded case study, “Assessing the role of cyberbiosecurity in agriculture.”

She explains that ag-related data includes everything from livestock on the ground with RFID tags collecting data to genetic sequencing.

“Agriculture is going to continue to have to adapt and create solutions,” she says, “knowing how big our food system is.”

As the world changes and grows more digitized, cyberattack concerns will naturally increase. The recent strategic attacks within beef production may be a bit of a rude wake-up call for all managers and producers to remain vigilant.

The need for robust security

It isn’t uncommon for an operation’s investments to fall behind in cybersecurity areas as opposed to other operational costs, according to Richard Rocca, chief information security officer for Bunge, an agribusiness that deals with food, commodities and supply chain technology.

“When funds are allocated, they need to be spent wisely on technologies that offer the best overall value by reducing the most amount of risk.”

There are many reasons a hacking group may target any given company. Oftentimes, they are financially motivated, as was the case at JBS where the hacker group demanded $11 million in exchange for not disrupting or deleting files. Rocca notes there are also “hacktivists” who want to promote a political agenda or ideology through their malice.

Drape says in cases of domestic cyberattacks, the food industry seemed to be of interest once hackers realized they could create major commotion and evoke a widespread response.

Large companies like JBS (and similar cattle operations like feedlots) are especially lucrative targets because they contain massive amounts of data from livestock, finances, food production and much more accumulated from all over the country. It’s not the same, she compares, to a single farm or ranch collecting data and storing from a single herd.

Actively responding

While such attackers may continue to target food and agriculture enterprises in the future, there are lots of things that individuals and companies can do to protect themselves. While not all details of the JBS attack and subsequent responses are known to the public, there were large-scale reactions taken to enhance cybersecurity.

Matthew Hartman, deputy executive assistant director for cybersecurity at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, says that protecting food and agriculture infrastructure is a duty shared by federal, state, local, tribal and territorial governments – plus private sector partners.

“Each day, we continue to see organizations fall victim to ransomware and other cyber intrusions,” he says. “These incidents serve as a reminder that anyone can be affected by a cyber breach – regardless of sector or size – and every organization should take steps to protect their most critical assets now. The bottom line is: A few simple measures such as patching software, particularly by focusing on known exploited vulnerabilities, using strong passwords and enabling multifactor authentication can drastically improve an organization’s cyber defenses.”

The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) formed its own cybersecurity committee dedicated to ensuring its members are informed about best practices to avoid becoming victimized. Sarah Little, NAMI’s vice president of communications, says that their members also learn from each other and other experts in the field.

“Many companies have robust security protocols in place, but others may not be aware of the threat posed to all industries, especially in a time of increasing global instability,” Little continues. “This committee will also help NAMI identify and develop cybersecurity resources for all members, and monitor and analyze cybersecurity policy initiatives.”

Drape agrees that education and resources on cybersecurity are important for operations of all sizes. This is especially important because hackers and software change so quickly.

“We can’t stop everything, but we are all creating data. Some of the data we can see standing in our fields and in our barns,” she says. “… that goes into a cloud, and we don’t even know if we actually own it. One of the biggest things we do is to keep educating ourselves.”

Drape recommends operations keep aware at what kind of data they are producing and what software or companies it is going to. This includes places like internet-connected security or calving cameras, RFID tags, GPS systems, various software and accounts used for management or bookkeeping, and even documents stored on private computers, thumb drives or shared networks. Any questions about data ownership or security shared with another company should always be asked.

Another part of security, Rocca notes, are the people in the company.

“People are the biggest risk, but they can also be a great asset, especially against ransomware attacks,” he says. “Make sure to invest in a robust training program so users can identify and avoid risky emails, attachments, links, etc.”

Part of that should include prompting employees to change their account passwords on a regular basis, as well as updating and patching software and systems. As an added security measure, important files and other information should be backed up in other locations if possible.

Undoubtedly, cattle operations will only continue to generate more data and be more reliant on computerization and software. While there is no guarantee a cybersecurity attack can be avoided entirely, good preparation and education can at least minimize the costs.  end mark

Getty Images.

Jaclyn Krymowski is a freelancer based in Ohio.

Minimize your risk

To minimize the risks of cyberattacks, follow basic cybersecurity best practices:

  • Keep software up to date. Install software patches so attackers cannot take advantage of known problems or vulnerabilities. Many operating systems offer automatic updates. If this option is available, you should enable it.

  • Run up-to-date antivirus software. A reputable antivirus software application is an important protective measure against known malicious threats. It can automatically detect, quarantine and remove various types of malware. Be sure to enable automatic virus definition updates to ensure maximum protection against the latest threats.

  • Use strong passwords. Select passwords that will be difficult for attackers to guess, and use different passwords for different programs and devices. It is best to use long, strong passphrases or passwords that consist of at least 16 characters.

  • Change default usernames and passwords. Default usernames and passwords are readily available to malicious actors. Change default passwords, as soon as possible, to a sufficiently strong and unique password.

  • Implement multifactor authentication (MFA). Authentication is a process used to validate a user’s identity. Attackers commonly exploit weak authentication processes. MFA uses at least two identity components to authenticate a user’s identity, minimizing the risk of a cyberattacker gaining access to an account if they know the username and password.

  • Install a firewall. Firewalls may be able to prevent some types of attack vectors by blocking malicious traffic before it can enter a computer system, and by restricting unnecessary outbound communications. Some device operating systems include a firewall. Enable and properly configure the firewall as specified in the device or system owner’s manual.

  • Be suspicious of unexpected emails. Phishing emails are currently one of the most prevalent risks to the average user. The goal of a phishing email is to gain information about you, steal money from you or install malware on your device. Be suspicious of all unexpected emails.

Source: Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency