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Montana Ag Network: Looking into who tracks agriculture data

Montana Ag Network
Posted at 6:40 AM, Apr 16, 2024

GREAT FALLS — In early March, Montana Farmers Union submitted a study bill in the Montana Legislature to look at the protection of agriculture data privacy. It's a conversation brought up nearly a decade ago when numerous farm organizations and equipment manufacturers drafted the core principles of Ag Data Transparent — an online platform promoting the privacy of data in precision agriculture.

“It does affect the yields and efficiency in production on these family farms." Schweitzer said.

As the leader of Montana Farmers Union, Schweitzer is making a push for more protection of data at the state level.

“I don’t want us to stop using these tools – I want us to use them fully and safely.” He said.

The push comes to a head — as MFU continues its fight for the Right to Repair.

Precision Agriculture is an all encompassing term for technological practices used in farming.

"I think of technology and how to effectively use that technology, to become more informed or better manage our cattle or farms, things like that," explained Megan VanEmon, MSU Cattle Beef Cattle Specialist.

As the technological footprint grows, VanEmon says the concern for privacy is high from agriculture producers around the state.

“It's sort of an it depends situation. We don’t know if the federal government is going to be using that information or utilizing that data or is a state government doing it, is it a private industry sort of thing?”

To VanEmon's point — MTN had the same questions she did, who is tracking this data to ensure its protected. MTN contacted the Federal Trade Commission, USDA, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and CISA, the Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency for answers. All of them deferred us to another agency. The USDA said we should look to Montana's Congressional delegation.

MTN contacted Sen. Steve Daines (R-Montana) issued a statement after we requested them to send a voting record and work to protect consumer privacy.

"Senator Daines is a strong supporter of Montana ag and frequently meets with Montana farmers and ranchers to hear their concerns and learn how to best support them. Daines is also working in the Senate to protect Montanans' data and will be exploring any opportunity to strengthen protections for consumers' and farmers' privacy."

Montana's lone democrat in its delegation, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) — his office submitted a list of his work to protect the privacy of Montanans and foreign adversaries.

Sen. Tester's Office shared with MTN he was a primary sponsor of legislation to ban foreign adversaries from purchasing, leasing, or otherwise acquiring American farmland to strengthen food security and prevent spying. Tester was also a leader in the Chinese spy balloon investigation andsecured resources to protect against similar incursions. Senator Tester's office also told MTN he helped introduce legislationto protect Montanans from warrant-less searches of data led by government and law enforcement.

Here is a statement from Sen. Tester (D-Montana):

"Montanans of all backgrounds value their privacy, and I’ll do everything in my power to ensure it’s protected. As ag equipment continues to become more computerized, it’s critical that Montana’s producers are in control of their data, know what information is being collected, and know who is able to access it. I’ll continue taking feedback from Montana’s producers as we work on legislation to ensure their privacy remains strong."

Despite support and efforts from Montana's Congressional delegation — protection of agriculture data is unclear at a federal level.

MTN tracked down Eric Sommer, the State Statistician for the National Agriculture Statistic Service in the USDA. Sommer says that the USDA has tight restrictions on the protection of collected data.

"We’re protected and bound by law to keeping that individual data locked down and not sharing it with anybody else. Not sharing out reports before everything else. We have a calendar that goes out in October, it says every release time, so everyone has the data at the same time." Sommer said. "We’re still doing it old school wise, we’re going to the actual producer, the actual farmer, we’re going to the actual Ag business and we’re asking how many acres you have, how many head of cattle, how much are you selling tractors for.”

With Montana Farmers Union's push for legislation to protect the data of farmers and ranchers Chairman of the Economic Affairs Interim Committee MT Rep. Josh Kassmier (R-Fort Benton) says protection falls on manufacturers supporting privacy of its users.

"It’s gonna come down to law. If you pass a law and you break it those companies are liable."

If a manufacturer is to released farmer data without their permission — perjury would come to a civil trial.

"The equipment manufacturers, they want control of that data. I think so they can use it against the family farm. That’s why we stand up for the family farm and want that data protected," added Schweitzer.

Montana Farmers Union's push for more protection and claims of manufacturers wanting control of user data, doesn't reflect the efforts of Torgerson's LLC and Frontline Ag Solutions, two Montana equipment dealers who value privacy.

Fischer added, "That data belongs to the producer."