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Montana Ag Network: A push for agriculture data privacy

Threat of foreign adversaries accessing "aggregated data" concerns Ag Policy group.
Posted at 2:09 PM, Apr 09, 2024

Montana Farmers Union filed House Joint Resolution No. 27 in the Montana State Legislature. It's a resolution in both chambers to request an interim study of agricultural data collection and use. It requires the final results of the study to be reported to the 69th legislature.

President of Montana Farmers Union, Walt Schweitzer, came across the study while researching the Right to Repair in the United States. The interim study resolution led to the Economic Affairs Interim Committee inviting Montana Farmers Union, Frontline Ag Solutions, Torgerson's LLC, and Montana Farm Bureau to attend a March 4 hearing.

To watch the March 4, 2024 Economic Affairs Interim Committee hearing, click here.

"You guys are not naïve." Schweitzer exclaimed to the Committee. "You hear all the time how data is being hacked. That data is hack-able. Much of these tools that are being built, have been built by China. So they have a back door to this data."

The concern lies in the collection of data in precision agriculture technology.

Precision Agriculture is an all encompassing term for farming methods using technology to enhance production. It can range from a computer system in field equipment, to electronic ear tags in cattle, or crop spraying/surveying drones. The opportunities appear endless as technology advances.

A large majority of Americans have cellphones. Data is collected in similar methods to a cellphone — information is uploaded to a server and stored in a physical data storage facility or in "the cloud."

The big question for Montana Farmers Union is who has access to data in "the cloud."

House Joint Resolution 27 Ag Data Privacy
House Joint Resolution No. 27 — Interim study of Agricultural Data Collection — Submitted by Montana Farmers Union.

TheUSDA tracks numerous statistics to gain an understanding of harvest patterns and and drought conditions, to name a few. The data collected is far and wide like the methods of technology becoming available to agriculture producers. Schweitzer says, his organizations concern is the threat of foreign adversaries using back channel avenues to access aggregated data to manipulate markets and supply chain.

"I think the real solution to this issue is if we make that data publicly available the moment it’s harvested." Schweitzer said during the hearing.

According the Schweitzer, if aggregated data is accessible to all. It creates a level playing field for farmers on the ground in production agriculture.

Aggregated data is a term used to describe a farmers intentions for a growing season, i.e., tracking how much fertilizer is dropped in a field and using those numbers with other data to predict the yield of a harvest.

During the hearing, Ken Wheeler, CEO of Frontline Ag Solutions weighed in on its data sharing practices when a grower purchases a new piece of equipment.

"If we have a farmer buy. We take a single piece of paper out there that talks about whether this farmer wants to opt in or opt out."

Wheeler is referring to a summarized legal document — it's those terms and conditions you see on your phone we all scroll by as fast as we can. It's called a "EULA" or End-User Licensing Agreement.

Frontline Ag Solutions is known for selling John Deere equipment. Another name in the field is Torgerson's LLC selling the CNH label. Wayne Fischer, was in the hearing on March 4, but met with MTN at its Great Falls location to walk through the licensing agreement.

"We can sign this agreement that says we can have access to the data that we pull off this machine."

He's the Director of Parts and Services for the dealer and says the reason Torgerson's would ask for access to machine data is to get ahead of maintenance. From any of its locations, with permission from a grower, a technician can access the computer system within a piece of equipment — speeding up the maintenance process.

"We can pull information if the customer chooses to share it with us." He said. "To say, hey, we don’t like the way the temperature in your transmission is spiking. We should come out and look at that. Or maybe we call pull codes prior to going out there, saving the customer some money and keeping the customer in the field."

Frontline Ag and Torgerson's might be competitors in the equipment market — but Fischer says the two have growers best interest in mind. The difference between the two, according to Fischer, CNH has a brand policy of farmers opting into data sharing and Deere has the opt out clause. He told MTN, Ken Wheeler, the CEO of Frontline Ag Solutions has taken it upon himself, to be upfront and opt growers out of the data sharing application from the get go — if a grower wants in — they must sign a waiver to opt in.

A belief of privacy that's synonymous between two brands with loyal brand customers.

"Access to the information belongs to the producer," stated Fischer.

As the conversation continues, steps have been implemented to ensure large agriculture corporations are transparent in data sharing practices.

"It recognizes companies that are being transparent with how they use farmer data," said Todd Janzen.

Todd Janzen is the Administrator forAg Data Transparent. ADT is a non-profit organization working alongside major farm organizations to promote fair play and accountability in data privacy for America's farmers.

The platform followed an initiative spearheaded by the American Farm Bureau Federation in 2014. It was brought to light by agriculture producers across the nation as concern grew over new technology hitting the market. After working with a number of organizations across the U.S. — the groups helped draft The Privacy and Security Principles for Farm Data — the policy which is known today as the 11 core principles of Ag Data Transparent. Today, ADT has 37 companies certified as incorporating the platforms core principles into its contract agreements with agriculture producers.

Senior Director of Governmental Affairs for the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, Nicole Rolf says its members are less concerned with data privacy at the moment. She says many of the organizations members would rather discuss drought, grasshoppers, or market prices — issues which are directly affecting them right now. She says the provisions in place through Ag Data Transparent are satisfying the needs of the members.

"It has really seemed to satisfy my members. It’s still a really good verification system for folks to be able to go through as new technology and new companies come in to be able to go in and check and see if this company is someone they want to work with. I’ve heard only positive or not a lot of buzz on that front." Rolf said.

Ag Data Transparent is not a policing group, it only offers agriculture corporations a seal of transparency, the company values producer privacy.

During the March 4 hearing — Montana Farmers Union President, Walt Schweitzer called out Syngenta. The company website states, "Syngenta is a global, science-based agtech company made up of Crop Protection and Seeds business units with more than 30,000 employees in 90 countries."

Schweitzer told state legislators — the Chinese owned companies footprint in the U.S. agriculture market could pose a threat to farmers nationwide. He says its ties to China, a known bad actor associated with the United States, could promote a data leak affecting the agriculture industry.

MTN reached out the the Public Affairs department for Syngenta and the corporation declined to participate in this story.

Here is the response from Syngenta:

Syngenta Declines to Interview
Syngenta declined to interview with MTN on data privacy sharing as a Chinese owned agtech company.

As the hearing concluded — MTN sat down with the Chairman of the Economic Affairs Interim Committee, MT Rep. Josh Kassmier (R-Fort Benton) what said the conversation of consumer privacy is a big one. Kassmier told MTN it was good to have the conversation with important leaders in agriculture. Though he foresees the topic is better fit at the federal level. He says it'll be less complicated for the state to enforce.

"If something needs to be done, these national farm groups can work with national leaders to get something passed, nationally. Then state law can just follow it to make sure everything is being enforced within our boundaries and all these local dealerships are actually securing everyone's data like they say they are."

The Economic Affairs Committee is the governing body of the Montana Legislature directly overseeing the Montana Department of Agriculture.

Schweitzer and Montana Farmers Union remained firm in its stance, legislation is needed to ensure Montana agriculture isn't threatened as technology advances.

"Once we have protected the privacy of the data and we don’t have to worry about that being exposed. Then we need to focus on how that aggregated data is being handled." Schweitzer said. "The aggregated data is not going to save the privacy of the farm. Releasing that data publicly doesn’t impact individual farmers. It actually protects them, because then no one has special access to that aggregated data."

"It's ridiculous," added Fischer. "Yes, you could hack and see certain things but you’re never going to see everything. My opinion, less legislation is better than more legislation. I think it’s being made out to be more than what it actually is."

As the conversation continues through advances in technology. MTN has interview with the Montana State University Extension Office, USDA's National Agriculture Statistics Service to gain further understanding of the concern and how data is tracked. Throughout in the month looking for answers, it was recommended to contact the FBI to ask questions of how data is tracked and flagged for inappropriate practices. The FBI deferred MTN to the Department of Homeland Security and was then deferred to the Cyber Security and Infrastructure Association (CISA), which stated it doesn't have a role in tracking data for agriculture. The next deferment from CISA was to the USDA. The USDA Office in Washington D.C. told MTN to head to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and we are currently in contact with its press team.

The picture wasn't painted clear in MTN's investigation of who is actually monitoring data stored in the "cloud."

We will continue to follow up to find more answers to ensure Montana producers understand how their data is tracked and protected.