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Cyber Security Implications on Smart Farming

Food security is a social problem gaining growing significance and requires careful study of how we produce, prepare, and distribute food [2, 6]. The rising use of digital technology to improve the procedures that support these activities has significant consequences for food security as a direct result of these developments. The effective production of sufficient food, also known as food availability, is a crucial component of food security, which is why we focus on such technologies in this research. Humanity’s efforts to increase the productivity of food production have traditionally relied heavily on technological advancements. Plows and other agricultural tools have been used for thousands of years, humans and animals, to cultivate the land and increase food production. High-tech digital tools such as robots, sensor-driven systems, drones, and automated image analysis are rapidly being utilized in today’s contemporary food production [11], which has witnessed a boom in the amount and complexity of the technology used.

Despite their many advantages, digital technologies provide new problems, such as the need to protect against cyberbiosecurity threats [27]. This involves ensuring that no vulnerabilities exist at the junction of cyber-security, cyber-physical Security, and bio-security. Recent studies have highlighted the variety of cyber-security dangers and attack vectors in the food industry, including the fact that data breaches in agricultural organizations have been reported and that many farmers and agribusiness owners have been harmed by computer security events [16]. In contrast to assaults on other critical infrastructure, the effects of those on the digital food business may not be immediately obvious (e.g., sudden loss of power, disruption of transport). However, the impact of cyber attacks on the food supply could not be immediate. If, for example, a cyber attack lessens agricultural output, it might ripple through the whole food distribution system, causing stores to run out of food and consumers to go hungry [21]. The operational technology (O.T.) used in food production and the information technology (I.T.) infrastructure that enables it must be safeguarded against accidental and malicious attacks that might interrupt output. Phishing and ransomware assaults, like the 2019 attack on the United Kingdom’s National Milk Group, show that this kind of cybercrime is rising against farms and agricultural businesses. However, the social and cultural setting that influences the creation and use of digital technologies for food production and which may either lessen or heighten the effect of actual risks have received little consideration.

The goals of this research are two-fold: first, to start a dialogue about how the food industry is pushed to adopt new digital technologies without much time to consider their cyber-security implications, and second, to shed light on how the socio-cultural context is intertwined with the development and use of cyber-secure technologies, and how unforeseen risks may arise when technologies are nascent. In order to achieve this goal, we will first investigate the contrasting pressures placed on the United Kingdom’s food industry to adopt technological solutions and the insufficient backing given to its cyber-security. The next section is an exploratory case study of the motivations for spreading an Israeli-invented but rapidly gaining popularity in the U.K. technical solution for the dairy farming industry.

The Digitized Food Sector: Technology First, Cyber-security Later?

To advance the increased efficiency of the United Kingdom’s food (producing) industry, the Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) promote the adoption of operational precision agriculture technology [17]. Rapid adoption trends [24] have been seen for such technologies, which means that if some farms start using a new piece of equipment, it will likely spread fast across the industry and be accepted by additional farmers. In addition, the industry often prefers “off-the-shelf” solutions that can be adopted quickly and widely [28]. Thus, the food industry faces pressure from above (in the form of government initiatives to promote the adoption of new technology) and below (in the form of the adoption of new technology by competitors). Leaving little room for deep introspection into how introduction of these technologies will alter the nature of their work and the potential risks and threats they face.

The United Kingdom government issued a public appeal to protect the food industry against targeted assaults in 2017 [18]. “Cyber-aided industrial espionage or hacking” was one such assault (unauthorized access to computer systems, sometimes with malevolent intent). An E.U. Directive does not cover the food business on the Security of network and information systems for critical national infrastructure, but the U.K. government has not done so (“NIS” Directive). Farmers and other interested parties in the food sector have pushed for the NIS directive to be applied to the food business to improve cyber-security regulations, but this won’t happen until the law’s first reevaluation [19]. Additionally, several cyber threats that the food industry must manage are discussed in pertinent Publicly. Available Specifications (PASs) sponsored by the U.K. Government [18], such as DDOS attacks on web-based ordering systems, loss of GPS-based navigation, and exfiltration of sensitive data due to phishing emails, little guidance is yet provided on how to adopt novel technologies safely and effectively. While explicitly understanding what consequences the assumption of such a technology will have. Due to the rapid adoption and widespread implementation of new technologies in the food industry, which leaves little room for contemplation of their influence on Security, cyber assaults provide a clear and present danger of huge disruption (i.e., technology first, cyber-security later). This may be especially important given that the United Kingdom produces about half of the food it eats [30]. Any delays in domestic food production would reduce the resilience of the food industry in the face of assaults. Both information technology and operational technology (i.e., technologies “in the field”) are potential targets of cyber assaults on the food industry (i.e., the computer systems used to control and manage those technologies). In addition, the origin of the innovations utilized by the United Kingdom’s food industry might be anywhere globally. How we approach and evaluate challenges and their answers profoundly impact how technology is produced (cf., [20]). Therefore, the culture of the society in the technology was produced, and the culture of the organization and sector within that society may have greatly influenced the way the technology was created. So, it’s important to remember that the technological solutions that work in one society or culture may not be the best fit for another (cf., [33]). Understanding how assumptions and expectations from the socio-cultural environment in which the invention was initially generated may or may not transfer successfully to the new site is especially important in a sector where innovations are quickly adopted and distributed.

Although these assumptions and requirements are fundamental to cyber Security in the food industry, most current research on the topic does not yet address them. Instead, modern research focuses on technical particulars or frameworks for data analytics and financial incentives. For instance, Chi et al. [8] proposed a structure for handling sensor data that accounts for encryption, access restriction, and false positive detection. Because most other industrial reports are preoccupied with imagined dangers, scientists have established quantitative prediction models for the vulnerability of technology in the food business [34]. (e.g., [5]). One of the few in-depth qualitative studies, however, Hecht et al. [15] stress the role of the social environment and organizational culture in understanding the lack of resilience in urban food supply chains. Complexity, interconnectedness, path dependence, and nonlinearity are some systemic traits cited supporting the social difficulties associated with innovation in the food business [32]. The industry may be strengthened and its resilience increased by considering the interdependence of cybersecurity, privacy, data transparency, sustainability, safety, and equitable access [26]. In this research, I’ll show you how shifting the focus of cyber security discussions away from solely technical problems, and solutions and toward the broader socio-cultural context of food production innovation is inevitable.

In conclusion, disregarding how different parts of the agricultural system rely on each other could lead to a “perfect storm” of problems for the U.K.’s food supply. If bad actors could successfully disrupt food and agriculture processes by taking advantage of weaknesses in operational precision agriculture technologies or the information technology that controls it. This would be similar to when WannaCry ransomware attacked the U.K.’s Health Protection Agency.

Case Study —Precise Dairy Production

The goal in doing this case study was to get a cross-section of perspectives on cyber Security in the food industry, with a particular emphasis on the Israeli dairy farming industry. Since the dairy business is at the forefront of precision animal farming technology [25], and Israel is a world leader in the dairy industry [29], this instance is of special relevance to our study of the potential origins of new and creative technologies. We examine the political and economic environment in the United Kingdom, where the early adoption of precision agriculture is being mobilized [10], using case study data from Israel (technology creators and early adopters).

Over two weeks, a qualitative study was done, including in-depth semi-structured key informant interviews [23] and site visits to acquire information from key stakeholders on the condition of cyber Security in Israel’s dairy farming business. We chose to construct an in-depth case study, establishing trust with key informants and relying on multiple data points obtained through interviews conducted at varying intervals. This is because it is difficult to conduct interview-driven studies in commercial sectors where the goal is to get participants to reveal critical information about the Security of products they develop or use [12], [13]. Participants were chosen based on their expertise and experience in various contexts relevant to precision farming, as well as their potential to provide light on pressing concerns identified by their peers (i.e., using them as key informants to further understand attitudes and requirements from these types of stakeholders). A risk analyst from an international strategy firm tasked with analyzing cyber-security across sectors was interviewed, as well as the chief technology officer (CTO) of a leading commercial vendor that provides sensor equipment to farms. A farmer using the vendor’s technology who could speak of the attitudes and opinions of other colleagues, and a farmer who uses the vendor’s technology. To learn more about the technology, we conducted many interviews with relevant parties and visited a farm already employing the vendor’s product. We do not reveal the identity of the interviewees or their companies due to the sensitive nature of addressing the security risks of a commercially marketed product. Before beginning any empirical experiment, we sought and received clearance from our Institutional Review Board (IRB). To protect your privacy, we did not record any interview responses.

These respondents heard an explanation of the research and gave their verbal approval to participate. We utilized a standardized interview guide based on questions and items from recent work on safe development [1] and precision agriculture cyber-security frameworks [8], [34] to accommodate the participants’ various responsibilities and linkages to the food sector and/or dairy farming technologies (shown in the Appendix). Many people were interviewed from different places or through video chat. Given the sensitive nature of these discussions, which revolved around the safety of the technology they built and used, we had one researcher do all interviews, accompanied by a second researcher periodically, to build rapport and trust. We did not videotape the interviews because of the delicate nature of the subject matter but instead took detailed notes to use in our research. Participants did not receive any compensation for their time.

A conceptual framework of the most important ideas in the interviews was developed through iterative discussion between the two writers using the interview notes. With Barbour’s reflection on qualitative research as a guide, who said, “what is ultimate of value is the content of disagreements and the insights that discussion can provide for refining coding frames,” [4] they did so to foster discussion and develop a common understanding of key points discovered in the interviews to reveal the attitudes towards cyber-security across stakeholders.

The comparative case study is divided into three sections: (1) an overview of the vendor’s developed technology; (2) a discussion of the technology’s most important requirements from both the vendor’s and the user’s perspectives; and (3) an examination of the technology’s actual application, including the implications for cyber security on both sides.

An Explanation of the Dairy Farming Sensor System

This vendor is a market leader in providing sensor-driven technology for precision farming. Their products are utilized by dairies of all sizes (from 50 to 400 cows) all over the globe. The technical answer is, in the simplest terms possible, a sensor-based system for monitoring data important to cattle’s health and well-being. Wearable physical sensors on individual cows collect information about their behavior and health. After being collected, this information is sent to a centralized database where farmers may keep tabs on it. The program processes this information to help decision-making on crucial facets of livestock performance that may affect the quality of the milk, such as stress levels, eating habits, or metabolic changes.

Technological Needs— Information Is Key

Data is the be-all and end-all, as we learned from our interviews. From the provider’s perspective, high-quality data is essential for creating a useful system for dairy farming since it serves as the foundation for all farmers’ decisions. Therefore, the sensors get the bulk of the development time, and attention as researchers determine what information can be gleaned from the cow and how farmers may use it. Capturing as much useful, usable data to aid in understanding cattle physiology and behavior is, thus, a primary emphasis of technological development. This is consistent with farmers’ goals, which center on using data to better understand their livestock (e.g. Keeping tabs on individual cows to determine the optimal time to inseminate, creating feed intake patterns, and comprehending behavioral factors affecting the health and well-being of their animals). The farmer and their coworkers, he or she said, make all choices using aggregated data; therefore, collecting as much high-quality data as possible is a top concern.

The farmer we spoke to had only been a dairy farmer for three years when we met him. Over those three years, he has consistently used sensor technologies, never seeing their introduction or deployment as a significant obstacle since, as he puts it, “farmers have always utilized technology to understand their cows for as long as they have existed.” Their farm has been operating for nearly 15 years. Since then, many other types of technology have emerged, with farm managers embracing new technologies whenever they provide a means to collect additional information about their cattle. The more information they collect, the better they can predict how each cow will act and whether or not they will be productive dairy cows. When asked what they hoped future technology would bring, the responses were uniform: more, more specific data, down to the genetic information of each cow. They said this would be wonderful for business since raising a cow to maturity is expensive, and if the cows are not as productive as hoped for, selling them as meat cows only allow for a partial recovery of those costs.

Because of the value placed on data, it is vital to take into account the minimum cyber-security measures described in the literature (e.g., [8], [34]), which include at least 1) anomalous measurement detection, 2) access restriction, and 3) encryption. Considering the data-driven nature of the technology, the developer places a premium on the ability to spot out-of-the-ordinary readings. Although access controls exist now, they are only applied to the most critical information. Nonetheless, stakeholders do not anticipate any risks that a malevolent actor may carry out with livestock data since most, if not all, data is openly shared due to the socio-cultural foundations of the agricultural industry in Israel. However, encryption is not as popular, most likely owing to similar views about data sharing and the belief that it is unproductive to prevent simple access to information.

Making Use Of Technology—Not All Dangers Are Viewed In The Same Light By Suppliers and Users

In addition, we developed a more nuanced appreciation of the dangers faced by Israel’s food industry and, more specifically, by digitally-enabled food production enterprises (such as precision livestock farming). We spoke with a director of a cyber security researcher who specializes in modeling and assessing cyber assaults and hazards, especially those that may affect key infrastructures like the food industry.

Organizations involved in food production confront a universal challenge across numerous industries. While there is less evidence that nation-states or their proxies are conducting hostile cyber assaults, there is evidence that smaller-scale cyber criminals motivated by economic motivations are conducting such operations (i.e., theft of data perceived as commercially sensitive or blackmailing). Since it takes time and energy to learn about new hardware, construct attacks, and discover suitable attack vectors, it stands to reason that they don’t concentrate on the operational technologies utilized in the food business. Instead, they use more traditional methods of attack, such as ransomware and phishing, to compromise the I.T. layer and blackmail its administrators into paying ransoms to regain access to their systems or prevent leaks of important information. Yet another direct danger vector is the exploitation of insecure settings by cybercriminals to hack the digital infrastructure of farms. In other words, hackers will try to get into systems by utilizing generic login information or exploit management tools like backup routines that include passwords. Thus, the information technology layer represents the primary economic danger to Israel’s food technology.

When we interviewed the system’s provider, we learned that the only true danger was the loss of data in real-time, regardless of its cause, making these attack routes appear more pertinent. It would be a serious issue if the system crashed for any reason, whether due to faulty code, external forces, or cyber assaults. Since most data nowadays resides in some kind of digital format, it seems that the current attack vectors represent a risk to the cyber-security of the system.

A far more complex picture emerges when we include the farmers’ perspectives on the importance of data loss and the measures they take to protect themselves from cyber threats. We observed that people who utilize sensor technologies are not too concerned about the possibility of data loss due to accidental disclosure or malicious extraction in our interviews. The farmer went on to say that, to the best of their knowledge, none of their other farmers were concerned about this, even though they use a centralized local server to store all their real-time and historical data. When asked why they did not see data loss as a threat, they cited two main reasons: first, they do not consider the data to be commercially sensitive; second, they do not consider the loss of real-time data to be a threat because it is used for day-to-day operations rather than long-term analysis and decision making, in contrast to the vendor. “if a veterinarian phones and requests for the info, they receive it,” they said of openly sharing it. Data is made available to researchers upon request.

Farmers said they understood how to operate their farms and that their years of expertise in day-to-day labor meant they considered the effect of not having this data on the production and well-being of their cattle to be insignificant. However, they had never previously encountered such a data loss. Farmers have noted the negative effects of a lack of real-time data on their capacity to swiftly respond to their cows. They noted that as historical or aggregated data is used to guide their decision-making, its loss is undoubtedly a problem that needs to be addressed. Dealing with it was, however, seen as straightforward since pertinent information could be easily acquired from coworkers due to the existing culture of openness and sharing such data.

According to them, this reluctance to share data stems from the idealistic communal communities known as kibbutzim [singular: kibbutz -] that aimed to promote socialism and equality “to all corners of the country” [22]. Founded on a utopian idea of collective duty and equal effort, these settlements’ primary economic activity was farming [31]. Many agricultural kibbutzim were privatized and separated from the initial utopian goals over time, partly owing to economic hardship and increased individualism; yet, their history had a lasting influence on the mentality of those working in the industry. Even though contemporary farming isn’t based entirely on community farming ideas, farmers and farm workers have maintained their friendly demeanor. Responsibility shared is an advantage shared, particularly when analyzing data. When dairy farmers share information with a governing body, it paves the way for more in-depth analysis of the industry as a whole than any farmer could do on their own. Almost every dairy farm in the nation is connected to this system, and they all get insight from the centralized research and analysis done on cows. Therefore, they are open to sharing information and do not feel threatened when other farmers get access to specifics about their operations (including information about their animals and finances).

Farmers were less concerned about unauthorized access to data stored in the farm’s I.T. layer than about the reliability of data collected by operational technology or physical sensors. They pointed out that it would be a serious issue if sensors were hacked and began providing false data without their knowledge. This may lead to choices based on misleading information, which could negatively affect cattle production and well-being. However, they saw this as improbable since they believed it would need both physical access and specific knowledge of the technology in question. The recognized threat actors in this context make this kind of cyber assault implausible, and for a good reason: altering data would reduce its potential worth to everyone. In this cultural setting, where farmers openly exchange data and cooperate rather than compete, commercial sabotage might be a primary motivation for such assaults. Due to the dairy farmers’ tendency to exchange information and gain knowledge from one another, this looks like an improbable danger that would have any real impact on the value of the parties involved(less worthwhile data to learn from, whereas the affected target can still learn from untampered data shared by others). A further cultural factor bolstering the system’s cyber-security is that farmers are comfortable with the vendor getting access to their I.T. infrastructure to set up the operational technology. To put it another way, they gladly provide the vendor access to their systems so that they may install and set up the technology, thereby lowering the likelihood of vulnerable systems due to improper configuration.

These socio-cultural roots of the agricultural industry and its ongoing influence on farmers’ views toward data sharing. On the other hand, mean that hackers will continue to seek to penetrate I.T. layers and steal data even while the major attack vector is focused on holding data ransom. Since other farmers are more likely to demonstrate solidarity and readily exchange the data needed to continue operations, the severity of this primary hazard is considerably lessened.

Discussion—The Origin of Production Is Crucial

The widespread use of sensor technology in regions outside of Israel may be attributed to the technology’s effectiveness in boosting dairy producers’ productivity. However, the agricultural industry’s cultural roots and the impact they have had on farmers’ attitudes have successfully reduced major cyber-security risks that the technology is facing. for example, ransomware threats focused on “locking” away data fail because day-to-day data is not seen as vital, and long-term data is freely shared across the sector. In other countries, where the agriculture business may have developed in quite different ways and has very distinct social foundations, it’s conceivable that this isn’t the case.

Referring to the U.K. set, the vendor mentioned adoption issues in the U.K. throughout our conversation, citing the less trusting nature of farmers when it comes to exchanging data. “Leaking of sensitive agricultural data,” including animal health and economic indicators, is cited as a major threat [3] by the vendor’s experiences and, for example, industry studies focused on the United Kingdom setting. This is because, unlike in Israel, the industry does not engage in open sharing. It’s possible that British farmers, unlike their Israeli counterparts, may be hesitant to provide the vendor access to their I.T. layer in order to install and configure the necessary operational technologies. Because of this mentality gap, U.K. farmers are less likely to depend on the openness of other farmers to exchange data, which increases the danger of bad configurations being misused as a threat vector and, more significantly, the effect of such risks. We thus argue that threats that made no sense in one cultural environment may become so again in another. This is shown by the fact that the danger of business sabotage, which had been reduced in Israel because the industry cooperated rather than competed, is once again a serious concern and is thus more likely to draw the attention of cybercriminals.

As a result, cyber-security seems compromised when technologies developed in one socio-cultural context are imported into another without explicitly stating the critical assumptions necessary for the safe and secure functioning of the system. This case study merely highlights one example of such socio-cultural aspects, namely the openness of a sector to share rather than compete, and how this modifies the effect of cyber assaults. Because of this, we must reevaluate risks. Typically, risks are evaluated by determining both the severity of their potential consequences (on a scale from, say, inconsequential to catastrophic) and the frequency with which they may occur (on a scale from uncommon to definite) (cf., [7]). If, for instance, we know that cybercriminals are actively using ransomware attacks to lock up I.T. layers in the food sector, and we further assume that devices in that layer are poorly protected against key delivery vectors (such as people not being trained to detect phishing, firewall and antivirus software not being kept up to date), then we can say that this is a very likely scenario. In any case, what would the repercussions be? Farms would likely shrug, replace the computer rather than pay the ransom, and continue using data readily given by other farmers if the attack succeeded and locked up data. In reality, the socio-cultural environment of the technology also affects the possibility of the attack since farmers are content to let the vendor safely set up the equipment, minimizing the chance of a bad configuration being misused as a danger vector.


Therefore, the effects of a cyber assault vary depending on the social and cultural setting in which the targeted technology is embedded. But the mere possibility of it may be impacted from the attackers’ perspective, as cybercriminals would (eventually) discover their efforts are pointless in this environment, driving them to forsake such attack routes in favor of better prospects. Therefore, to estimate the socio-culturally dependent risk posed by a cyber-attack, it is essential to have a solid understanding of the industry as a whole as well as the mentality of the people who work inside it. This demonstrates the critical need for research into the protection of national infrastructures, or any sector for that matter, to better understand digital technologies and their cyber-security in the socio-cultural contexts in which they are situated. What socio-cultural factors of technology development and use may alter, either for the better or for, the worse, the implications and possibility of cyber attacks?


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