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CYBER-CRIMINALS A THREAT TO IDAHO AGRICULTURE INDUSTRY

Russian hackers target U.S. farmers demanding millions in ransom…who is next?

A Russian hacking group– known as BlackMatter– launched a ransomware attack on an Iowa farming co-op known as New Cooperative in early September. The hacking group demanded $5.9 million in ransom, threatening to publish the farm co-op’s data if they did not receive the ransom payment by September 25th. The co-op’s data included their research, development documents, and the code to its soil-mapping technology. Due to the attack, the member-owned alliance of soy and corn farmers was forced to go offline (Dam, 2021). Prior to the event, the FBI had warned food and agriculture producers that they could be targeted by cybercriminals. Since the company did not have the proper protection, the co-op’s system went down. This hurt the company because the system is used to track food supply chains and feeding schedules for millions of chickens, hogs, and cattle (Bogage and Reiley, 2021).

Natalie Covarrubias, Communications Manager at the Institute for Pervasive Cybersecurity, met with Owen McDougal, Professor, and Chair of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Boise State University, to discuss the ransomware attack.  McDougal has also received, “three grants totaling over $580,000 to advance food and dairy production methods in Idaho,” (Phillips, 2021). With his experience in this field, McDougal added significant insight regarding the idea that this could have an impact on Idaho. He stated, “It’s huge. Every one of our food processors is susceptible. A cyber attack could happen to anyone at any time.  It could cripple even organizations such as Boise State University. It’s a massive  threat that has largely gone unchallenged.” Unfortunately, this attack on the co-op in Iowa is one of many cyberattacks that occur every day, which negatively impact an organization’s finances, operations, and private information.

“It’s huge. Every one of our food processors is susceptible. A cyber attack could happen to anyone at any time.  It could cripple even organizations such as Boise State University. It’s a massive  threat that has largely gone unchallenged.”

Cybercriminal organizations such as BlackMatter continue to grow and develop increasingly sophisticated techniques to attack vulnerable groups.  The Skybox Security 2020 Vulnerability and Threat Trends Report indicated that ransomware attacks have gone up 72% since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. This trend drives the need for organizations such as New Cooperative to increase investments in advancing their cybersecurity posture.  However, many firms in hyper-competitive, low-profit-margin industries have struggled to keep up.  McDougal described, “What you find with food processing is it’s done at the margins so food processes have not gone up appreciably over time. What that means is there’s more and more pressure for operational efficiency, which stifles the integration of new technology, state-of-the-art machinery, and robotics.” This issue is compounded by a nationwide deficit in workforce-ready cyber professionals. From April 2020 to March 2021, the United States had over 464,000 job openings (Cybersecurity Supply And Demand Heat Map).

Several parallels exist between the states of Idaho and Iowa.  With a limited supply of cyber professionals and also being an agricultural state, who’s to say Idaho isn’t next? This could result in loss of critical data, physical services, or even lives are at risk if our diverse infrastructure cannot be secured. (Benson, 2021). Boise State University’s Institute for Pervasive Cybersecurity is helping to mitigate this risk by developing the Cyberdome. The Institute’s cyberdome project, pictured above, attends to these critical needs by providing cybersecurity services to secure critical cyber and physical risks for small, rural clients while creating competency-based learning platforms for Idaho cybersecurity learners; creating a career-ready cyber workforce for the State of Idaho.