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Farms vulnerable to cyber security threats, new research shows

By Lilian Schaer 

As Canada’s farms become more connected and more digital, there is a consensus among experts that it’s a matter of when and not if a farm business will experience a cyber security problem. 

This can result in disruptions of farm operations, financial losses, unauthorized access to sensitive information, and on a larger scale, challenges to Canadian food security if the problem impacts the broader supply chain. 

Agriculture is a particularly vulnerable sector because it is made up of many independent businesses – and cyber attackers by nature will go after the most vulnerable targets. 

“The biggest risk right now is the level of maturity and capacity related to cyber security in the ag sector,” says Dr. Janos Botschner, lead researcher behind the Cyber Security Capacity in Canadian Agriculture project. 

It’s a multi-year research project funded by the federal government to help get a better sense of cyber security readiness across the agriculture sector and includes a literature review of digital systems in agriculture; interviews and focus groups with the ag sector; a producer survey, and resources created specifically for farmers. 

According to Botschner, most other economic sectors, from finance and health to energy, have fairly sophisticated cyber security frameworks in place, but agriculture has lagged at least in part because there is a relatively low perception of risk. 

“If you’re looking at tight margins already, it might be difficult to see yourself paying for some additional services you don’t necessarily see the value of,” he says. 

Most farms, the research showed, are family operations that manage their own networks and often run them off a residential system. Except for very large operations, most family farm businesses do not have a family or staff member with cyber security expertise, and while there are some cyber security practices in place, they are uneven and not as strong as they could be.

Botschner’s research revealed that a key barrier to cyber security action on the farm is not knowing where or how to start. In fact, 52% of respondents to his team’s producer survey didn’t see cyber security as a priority, 47% didn’t know where to find help, and 25% said they didn’t have to resources to act. 

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