Canadian farms grist for the mill of global computer hackers

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Mounting international tensions over Russia’s escalating encroachment on Ukraine seem far removed from a Prairie farm family going about their daily business.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/01/2022 (369 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Mounting international tensions over Russia’s escalating encroachment on Ukraine seem far removed from a Prairie farm family going about their daily business.

However, as this week’s events unfolded, it became disturbingly clear how those seemingly disparate realities could converge.

Just as two cybersecurity experts were delivering a webinar to raise farmers’ awareness that Canada’s agri-food system is considered part of critical infrastructure and that makes them targets for cybersecurity attacks, the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security was issuing this alert.

“The Canadian Centre for Cyber Security encourages the Canadian cybersecurity community — especially critical infrastructure network defenders — to bolster their awareness of and protection against Russian state-sponsored cyber threats.”

“Canada’s Cyber Centre, part of the Communications Security Establishment, is aware of foreign cyber threat activities, including by Russian-backed actors, to target Canadian critical infrastructure network operators, their operational and information technology (OT/IT).”

There are already examples of disruptions, including attacks earlier this year against global meat-processing giant JBS, the Australian Wool Exchange, a U.S.-based online farm equipment auction service and U.S. grain buyers. At least some were linked to Russian sources.

This threat is emerging while the food system is already facing supply chain disruptions and capacity shortages largely attributable to the ongoing pandemic and weather disasters. Events over the past couple of years have progressively ripped the cover off inherent vulnerabilities in Canada’s food system, including labour shortages and our reliance on just-in-time delivery systems.

Is it a coincidence that Russia has chosen to make its move at a time when foreign governments have been preoccupied with pandemic management and dealing with the economic fallout?

While the vast majority of cyberattacks are financial in nature, there is a threat of attacks that create disruptions either through breakdowns in the supply chain or by sowing uncertainty and suspicion through disinformation.

“Certainly the system as a whole, as a critical infrastructure, is on the radar and is likely to be the focus of an increased level of activity in the coming years,” said Janos Botschner, lead investigator for the federally funded Cyber Security Capacity in Canadian Agriculture initiative.

While individual farms, even large ones, are small potatoes compared to holding up the likes of JBS, which ultimately paid hackers US$11 million, they are often the least well protected; their digital devices may serve multiple purposes in the household, such as keeping the farm’s business records as well as doing homework.

As well, farmers are increasingly connected to larger networks through digital commerce and data capture related to precision agriculture, which positions them as a convenient back door.

They operate farm equipment connected to the manufacturer’s central network through software, which is convenient for upgrades and troubleshooting, but also a mechanism for hackers to have a broad impact.

Cybersecurity consultant Ritesh Kotak said awareness is growing as more of our daily business goes online. Until recently, people didn’t think about cybersecurity until they had a problem.

“What businesses are starting to really understand is that maybe putting in a little upfront investment, really thinking about cybersecurity and its implications makes sense,” he told the webinar. “So we’re starting to move from a very reactive model to a somewhat proactive model.”

There are proactive measures that farmers, along with all of us, can take to reduce our risk. Most of them only cost time and brainpower.

Keep your hardware and software up to date with the latest security patches, be mindful of how much personal information you share on social media, use virtual private networks (VPNs), make a diagram of how your household devices are linked, keep a list of on-farm suppliers with which you are connected digitally and consider what you would do if critical farm information was unavailable to you, even temporarily.

Seek advice on how you would continue to operate your business in the event of a cyber disruption, back up critical data, and balk at attempts to convince you to click a link without making sure it’s legit.

Our increasingly connected world underscores one of Botschner’s final points to his audience. “We’re all in this together.”

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at lrance@farmmedia.com

Laura Rance

Laura Rance
Columnist

Laura Rance is editorial director at Farm Business Communications.

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