Could Agri-Business Be the Next Target of Cyberattacks?

To fight back against cyberthreats, security officials encourage people to work with government agencies and find ways to keep information offline.

by Austin Harrington, Ames Tribune, Iowa / March 31, 2016

(TNS) — Cybersecurity was the main focus of a presentation given at Iowa State University Wednesday that drew a crowd of about 35 agri-business leaders from around the state.

The presentation was hosted by ISU and involved the Department of Justice, U.S. district attorneys and several others with the keynote speeches coming from Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Carlin and FBI Deputy Assistant Director of the Cyber Crime Division Eric Sporre.

During the discussion, the two cybersecurity experts offered their opinions on issues surrounding cyberthreats to American business interests and national security. Carlin said that because of work taking place in Ames and other locations around the state in agriculture and other industries, Iowa is a prime location for a specific type of theft.

“I think what we’re seeing, in part, in terms of Iowa, both in Ames and I’ll be out in Des Moines later, particularly when it comes to the theft of trade secrets and national security cyberespionage and also physical espionage that one of the key sectors that they want to target is bioengineering and particularly agriculture, bio-agriculture products,” Carlin said.

With that being the objective of several organizations, Iowa could top the list of targets for anyone looking to steal agricultural secrets, according to Carlin. To help businesses and national security agencies to work more closely on the threats, Carlin said he is encouraging business leaders and members of the agencies to build bridges.

“We’ve changed our approach to fix this problem,” he said. “It’s not one we can do in our secure windowless facilities like we were used to doing in national security, say 15 years ago. We need to reach out to each of the affected sectors, talk to them one on one and see the problem.”

Sporre echoed those comments while speaking to the business owners and CEOs of different corporations Wednesday by saying that the only way the FBI can do its job when it comes to cybersecurity, is with the help of the businesses that have been targeted.

“The only way that my teams and I learn about what’s important to you and what are the most valuable items that you hold in your information is by you telling us and by you working with us and by you educating us,” Sporre said. “It really has to be that two-way street. It has to be a conversation, we have to be in a relationship where you believe, if you have an intrusion, we’re not going to come in, take over and broadcast your information on the TV and damage your company.”

To show examples of when the federal government and corporations worked well together, Carlin discussed two cases that were covered heavily by several news organizations.

The first was the hacker attack on Sony that was allegedly connected to the North Korean government and resulted in personal information about Sony employees to be released.

The second story concerned the Chinese government and an attempt to steal agricultural secrets directly from a corn field.

“An individual from a company spots a man in the field on his hands and knees in this corn field on a sunny day in the middle of the afternoon digging up, it looks like corn, in the corn field,” Carlin said. “That observation led to a multi-year investigation that ultimately led to the criminal charges and pleading guilty of a multi-person, five or six person ring, of conspirators who were attempting to steal an incredibly valuable seed and deliver that to China.”

Carlin added that not all theft is done online so companies need to protect their information in various ways.

“So they know what they want and then they task people who are hacking it or stealing it in the brick and mortar world by going into corn fields to go get it and you are on the front lines because you have one of the things they want the most, the engineering techniques you are using to increase agricultural production,” Carlin said.

To fight back against those types of threats, Carlin said he encourages people to work with the government agencies as well as finding ways to keep information offline and using software that only allows employees to access the system while blocking hacking programs.

“I think they need to build it in, even small and mid-size businesses. Think of it as a risk mitigation strategy,” Carlin said.

Following the discussion, Carlin, Sporre and others went on a tour of the Biorenewables Research Laboratory building at ISU. During the tour, the group saw 3-D printing operations and several other projects that are taking place on campus. From there, both men traveled to Drake University in Des Moines to take part in another conference on cybersecurity.

©2016 the Ames Tribune, Iowa Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.