Thursday, May 21, 2020

Agriculture: Along With Huge Opportunity, Increasing Automation Creates A Major Security Risk

As Grandmother used to say, "If it's not one tham ding it's another."
From Logic Magazine a first rate look at the opportunities and some of the concerns:

Attacking Agriculture
Agricultural production increasingly relies on sensors and internet-connected devices that are rife with security vulnerabilities
On a rectangle of land the size of a baseball field three hours northwest of London, a project called Hands Free Hectare plants and harvests wheat with almost no human intervention. For the last three seasons, an autonomous tractor has worked its way up and down the plot, sowing the wheat and spraying it with liquid fertilizer, herbicides, and fungicides. A small robot collects soil samples and a drone takes thermal photos of the crop from above to monitor for inconsistencies. When researchers determine that the time is right, they send an unmanned combine harvester to mow the wheat and shoot it into the back of a grain tractor that drives itself alongside the combine.

Hands Free Hectare is just one of many examples of model farm projects that aim to demonstrate the promise of automated, autonomous agriculture on a large scale. In the US, the Microsoft-backed Grand Farm outside of Fargo, North Dakota is building a farm complex to experiment with robotic planting and irrigation; the University of California, Davis’ Smart Farm initiative is building “an Agricultural Innovation Hub to develop smart machines with industry collaborators.” Fully autonomous agricultural machinery is not yet commonly used, or even functional outside of very constrained environments. But the GPS-controlled machinery and drones that make that vision possible to imagine and fund today have already been widely adopted by agricultural operations all over the world.

The adoption of technologies to automate and generate data about farming operations is known in the industry and in academia as “precision agriculture.” The cheerleaders of this approach frame it as the optimization we need—“each plant gets just the right amount of water and fertiliser for maximum yield,” as the Financial Times put it in 2017—to feed the world’s billions of mouths and conserve resources in the face of climate change. Precision agriculture is heralded by development agencies and funders as a solution to food insecurity. Under the banner of “feeding the world” the digitization and datafication of agriculture have gathered so much momentum that their continued development and adoption seems inevitable.

But the most promising takes on precision agriculture rarely mention the numerous threats that accompany it. All of that efficiency often requires not just sensors, but coordination among the sensors, routing of the data that those sensors collect back to a central data store, and ongoing monitoring to ensure that batteries haven’t died and connections haven’t dropped along the way. The proliferation in agriculture of systems that are supposed to run themselves has created a massive surface area of weak links, delicately strung together.

Threats to food supplies have always come in many shapes and forms: famine, war, and sabotage have wreaked havoc on societies throughout human history. Now, those of us whose access to food is mediated by digitized agricultural production systems face a double threat: the rapidly expanding mesh of insecure devices that control how our food is planted, watered, monitored, harvested, and transported; and, at the same time, the shifting balance of power away from farmers, towards the governments, corporations, and investors that wield massive amounts of capital.

Making Hay
In its purest form, the goal of precision agriculture is to guide or control every part of the food production system: what type of seed to use, how much fertilizer to apply, when to plant and harvest. The approach has its origins in the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) that was introduced on farms in the 1960s and 1970s to plot the locations of soil samples on a map, and in GPS receivers and mobile tools to monitor yields and soil composition, introduced in the 1990s. More recently, the rise of precision agriculture has been enabled by the explosion in internet connectivity that the world has experienced over the past ten years....