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Studying cybersecurity in ag equipment

Studying cybersecurity in ag equipment

Researchers are looking at how to keep equipment and data safe

By Diego Flammini
Staff Writer

Anything with a computer has the potential to be hacked, says Austin O’Brien, an associate professor of computer science and Master of Computer Science coordinator at Dakota State University in Madison, S.D.

He and a group of computer science students are studying the security of farm equipment and data transfer using materials from CNH and AI Sweden, the Swedish National Center for applied AI.

CNH approached O’Brien about two years ago about conducting this kind of work using its hardware.

Test results and discussions indicate cybersecurity hasn’t been a top priority.

“What we’ve found a lot of the times with researchers and folks in the industry is the cybersecurity aspect is something that didn’t come up during the engineering process or something that came up a little too late,” he said.

At the school’s Cyber Labs, or MadLabs as it’s called around the campus, students use a simulated tractor cab equipped with a CNH monitor and CNH hardware.

They’re looking for gaps in the systems that hackers could exploit.

The Controller Area Network, or CAN Bus, which mechanics can plug into to receive an error code, could be a target.

“Someone with enough know how could get into it without too much trouble,” O’Brien said. “Once they have access, they could control the tractor, stop it dead in its tracks or worse.”

Hackers could also use the CAN Bus to access or disrupt the flow of data.

One experiment O’Brien’s students conducted resulted in a tractor diverting from its regular path.

They did this using a technique called data poisoning, which is designed to manipulate or harm machine learning algorithms.

“They put a little red square in the corners of pictures where there was a straight row,” O’Brien said. “The tractor system identified the red square but continued to drive straight. But over time the system got poisoned enough that when it came to a corner, if a little red square was in the picture, it would keep driving straight. That helped prove the concept that these models are not secure.”

When purchasing a new desktop computer or laptop, some people may opt for antivirus software to help keep the machines safe.

Antivirus in ag equipment doesn’t seem like a farfetched idea, O’Brien said.

“Really that kind of tool can be used in anything that does data processing,” he said. “I think for ag equipment we’d like to see it in the hardware, so the farmer doesn’t have to take care of it themselves. But farmers will definitely have to keep up with hardware and software updates.”

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