Cyber security: global food supply chain at risk from malicious hackers

Modern “smart” farm machinery is vulnerable to malicious hackers, leaving global supply chains exposed to risk, experts are warning.

It is feared hackers could exploit flaws in agricultural hardware used to plant and harvest crops.

Agricultural manufacturing giant John Deere says it is now working to fix any weak spots in its software.

A recent University of Cambridge report said automatic crop sprayers, drones and robotic harvesters could be hacked.

The UK government and the FBI have warned that the threat of cyber-attacks is growing.

John Deere said protecting customers, their machines and their data was a “top priority”.

Smart technology is increasingly being used to make farms more efficient and productive – for example, until now the labour-intensive harvesting of delicate food crops such as asparagus has been beyond the reach of machines.

The latest generations of agricultural robots use artificial intelligence, minimizing human involvement. They may help to plug a labour shortage or increase yield, but fear of the inherent security risk is growing, adding to concern over food-supply chains already threatened by the war in Ukraine and Covid.

Chris Chavasse, the co-founder of Muddy Machines, which is trialing an autonomous asparagus-harvesting robot called Sprout, said: “There is a real risk that people anywhere in the world could try and take control of these machines,” he said. “to get them to do whatever those people want, or just prevent them from operating.”

He said potentially someone could drive Sprout into a hedge or a ditch, or prevent it from working at all, so they are working with security researchers to address any vulnerability.

Asparagus farming is unlikely to be a prime target, but Mr. Chavasse believes malicious hackers could threaten “mission critical” agricultural infrastructure.

Even the largest companies aren’t safe from cyber gangs. Some use ransom ware: malicious code that can encrypt data and lock systems.

Last year, one of the world’s biggest meat processing company, JBS, paid $11m in ransom to resolve a cyber attack. This month, top US agriculture firm, AGCO, was hit by a ransom ware attack that affected production.

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