Tackling the new wave of cybercrime within agriculture

According to the 2020 Cyber Security Breaches Survey by the UK Government, nearly half of businesses experienced some form of digital attack in the last year. You are, statistically, more likely to fall victim to cybercrime than any other type of wrongdoing. Farms are no exception.

However, Louise Manning, Professor at the RAU and an expert in food security, is keen to emphasise that farmers should not avoid digital solutions, but instead approach them with appropriate levels of caution: “Digital solutions bring great benefits, allowing farmers to be in charge of their own data and manage their system more effectively, whether it’s real-time accounting, monitoring crop or livestock growth, or other aspects of their business. It’s all at their fingertips.”

According to Andrew Smith, Hardware Manager at Farmplan, provider of market-leading software and digital solutions for farms and rural businesses, more farmers are turning to external support services like theirs to save time and hassle while ensuring protection.

“Whether it’s protecting their personal data or effectively utilising cloud backups, many farmers understandably would prefer to focus on farming instead of digital administration,” says Andrew. “We have worked closely with many farmers – which can be done online, as our LogMeIn facility can permit us access remotely – who know that the risks are very real but wish to seek external support to ensure the right level of protection and peace of mind.”

Viruses

By now, the majority of us are aware that viruses can quickly wreak havoc on our systems. Dr Clive Stainton, visiting professor at many universities, is an expert in this area: “We have often met with farmers who’ve been hit by viruses. Unfortunately, if they haven’t backed up, all the data is probably lost. All their records gone in one sweep. That can be the end of someone’s business. I’ve seen people turning up in tears.”

Viruses are harmful but can generally be protected against by investing in robust antiviral software and a secure backup system. Crucially, this must be kept up to date, including the operating system.

Targeted attacks

Unfortunately, attacks can be more sophisticated than viruses. Indeed, the government’s own research shows a rise of over 10% in crimes involving ransomware and phishing in the last three years.

Phishing is the creation of emails that appear to be reputable and from real companies, requesting sign-in information or other personal details. These can look uncannily close to the real thing, even with specially designed websites to match. Once the misled user enters their details, these are stolen.

Ransomware is even more sinister. It’s malicious software that blocks a user’s system (or captures personal data, including video and images direct from the user’s webcam) to blackmail for significant sums.

“How many people have been affected by this?” asks Dr Stainton. “In 2018, it cost people in the UK just under £10 billion and that figure has likely doubled by now. Many are reluctant to spend a little bit for protection but being affected will cost ten times as much.”

As Professor Manning points out, there are several layers of exposure here. There is clear risk to the victim’s business – not just the immediate payment, but in weakening relationships with their customers: “If you’re supplying a retailer, do you want to tell them that you’ve had a ransomware threat and that you have lost control of your business’ overall security as a result?”

Protecting yourself

Everybody is affected by cybercrime, from smallholders right through to significant commercial farms and large estates. There is a similarly large spectrum of cybercriminal. Some are bored hackers, while others are much more professional.

“Farmers, of course, want nothing to do with this,” says Andrew Smith. “Unfortunately, criminals are not so considerate. Taking the necessary precautions is common sense. As with other crimes, the more difficult you make it for criminals, the less likely they are to prey on you.”

“Do not be that farmer. Do not get into this horrible situation. Seek out proper guidance, invest in the right software and make sure you’re protected.”

“Whenever you have a benefit, there is some vulnerability,” adds Professor Manning. “Many businesses are attacked by malware or ransomware. We just don’t hear about it. The criminals seeking your data are entrepreneurial – they will find ways to develop their own business model for stealing your data. Farmers should be aware of the risks and seek out effective protection and guidance that keeps their business safe.”

How can your farm be more secure? For advice and a no-pressure discussion, contact our knowledgeable team on 01594 545033 or access our range of IT services here.