Cyber attacks: Why ag tech innovation could be an 'easy' target for hackers to threaten food supplies

By Gary Scattergood contact

- Last updated on GMT

The rise of internet connectivity and smart low-power devices has  manshifted food production jobs into the digital domain. GettyImages
The rise of internet connectivity and smart low-power devices has manshifted food production jobs into the digital domain. GettyImages

Related tags: Food security, Agriculture

While ag-tech innovators are striving to power global food security improvements, international experts have warned their solutions could 'easily' fall victim to cyber attackers who want to disrupt food supplies.

Complex IT and math modelling at King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia, Aix-Marseille University, France and Flinders University in South Australia, has highlighted the risks in a new article in the open access journal Sensors​.

“Smart sensors and systems are used to monitor crops, plants, the environment, water, soil moisture, and diseases,”​ says lead author Professor Abel Alahmadi from King Abdulaziz University.

“The transformation to digital agriculture would improve the quality and quantity of food for the ever-increasing human population, which is forecast to reach 10.9 billion by 2100.”

However, this progress in production, genetic modification for drought-resistant crops, and other technologies is prone to cyber-attack – particularly if the ag-tech sector doesn’t take adequate precautions like other corporate or defence sectors, researchers warn.

Flinders University researcher Dr Saeed Rehman says the rise of internet connectivity and smart low-power devices has facilitated the shift of many labour-intensive food production jobs into the digital domain – including modern techniques for accurate irrigation, soil and crop monitoring using drone surveillance.

“However, we should not overlook security threats and vulnerabilities to digital agriculture, in particular possible side-channel attacks specific to ag-tech applications,”​ says Dr Rehman, an expert in cybersecurity and networking.

“Digital agriculture is not immune to cyber-attack, as seen by interference to a US watering system, a meatpacking firm, wool broker software and an Australian beverage company.”

“Extraction of cryptographic or sensitive information from the operation of physical hardware is termed side-channel attack,”​ adds Flinders co-author Professor David Glynn.

“These attacks could be easily carried out with physical access to devices, which the cybersecurity community has not explicitly investigated.”

The paper warns: "Most new technology products are developed and commercialised to capture the market quickly. Many devices and sensors are not made explicitly for DigAg applications, but are modified to be used in agriculture, where customisation is mostly directed toward utilisation in a harsh uncontrolled outdoor environment. Less thought is given to the security of the devices. Like other technologies, security is usually considered the last priority rather than embedding security into the design phase."

The researchers recommend investment into precautions and awareness about the vulnerabilities of digital agriculture to cyber-attack, with an eye on the potential serious effects on the general population in terms of food supply, labour and flow-on costs.

The research received funding from the Saudi Ministry of Education, furthering Saudi Vision 2030.

Source: Sensors

"Cyber-Security Threats and Side-Channel Attacks for Digital Agriculture​"

DOI: 10.3390/s22093520

Adel N Alahmadi, et al.

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