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Is the Food Supply Chain the Next Big Cyber Target?

Client Updates

In a recent advisory, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) warned of potential cyber-attacks in the agricultural sector. It noted the rising number of attacks on cooperatives, and significant attacks in other parts of the food supply chain. In an effort to increase operational disruption, cyber criminals are attacking during critical seasons, like planting or harvest.

The FBI warning comes amid growing concerns around food shortages in some areas of the world. Both Russia and Ukraine have traditionally been major exporters of staple crops. The Russian invasion has halted exports out of Ukraine, and economic sanctions against Russia have created significant trade barriers. Given this, the impact of a cyber event that causes disruptions in the food supply chain may have an even more profound impact.

The agricultural sector has been the target of multiple cyber events in the past 12 months, including:

  • A May 2021 ransomware attack on the world’s largest meat processing company, which impacted its systems in the U.S. and overseas and resulted in the shutdown of multiple plants for several days. This, in turn, reduced the number of animals slaughtered and caused a shortage in the U.S. meat supply leading to significant price hikes.

  • A July 2021 ransomware attack on a business management software company that services the agricultural industry; the attack led to secondary ransomware infections on agricultural businesses.

  • A July 2021 ransomware attack on a U.S. food company which resulted in a halt in production, shipping, and receiving for a week.

  • A string of ransomware attacks in late 2021 against at least six grain cooperatives. These cooperatives served as a single sales outlet for crops from their membership, and the attacks impacted both the cooperatives themselves and their members.

  • A February 2022 ransomware attack on a company that provides feed milling and other agricultural services.

  • A March 2022 ransomware attack on a multi-state grain processing company, that also provides seed, fertilizer, and logistics services.

While attacks on any company or industry can have far-reaching impacts, there are specific challenges for the agricultural sector.

  • Attacks can have a significant impact on global food supply and food safety, and impact other parts of the agricultural sector (i.e. both humans and animals rely on grain). Disruptions in the sector can lead to serious issues, including financial loss, productivity declines, and loss of public trust. As such, the industry has become a target for cyber criminals, as significant disruptions often lead to quicker payouts.

  • The agricultural sector is quickly adopting more automation and becoming more technologically sophisticated. Farming and agricultural businesses are more reliant on drones, GPS mapping, and other IoT devices. Unfortunately, Internet-based control and automation systems provide more access points for cyber criminals.

  • Many experts consider the agricultural industry to be behind other industries in cyber awareness and hygiene. In the attacks mentioned above, hackers exploited unpatched vulnerabilities and legacy (and often outdated) software applications. Many in the industry use the same software programs and systems, and the same managed service providers creating the potential that one attack could impact multiple companies at one time.

  • There are cybersecurity requirements or industry standards for the agricultural industry. Fortunately, this is slowly changing, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture is providing grants to assist with security infrastructure development and developing programs to make the sector more resilient and secure.

The FBI advisory laid out specific steps that those in the agricultural sector can take to prevent and mitigate cyber incidents. We discussed many of these recommendations in a recent client alert.

Our data privacy and cybersecurity team of attorneys is available to help with any questions or issues that arise. Please contact the authors of this article, or any member of the Baker Botts team, if you have questions or need assistance.

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