New technology vs. your right to privacy

Big Data comes with risks | Technology providers can learn more about your operation than you might think, warn experts

The race is on to make sure farmers are protected if they fall in love with Big Data.

It might soon be too late to develop a farmer-focused approach that eliminates the greatest risks to farmers’ privacy and rights, say some U.S. farmer representatives.

“If we’re going to get these issues right between farmers and agriculture technology providers, we pretty much have this year to do it because by next year it will be much more difficult to accomplish,” said Mary-Kay Thatcher of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Big Data refers to the masses of information now capable of being produced by the monitors and sensors in farmers’ tractors, combines and other equipment. Service providers collect the information and then use computer analysis and human staff to note any problems or opportunities.

Big machinery and seed companies, including John Deere and Monsanto, have recently offered early versions of their data programs to farmers in the central Midwestern states of Iowa, Illinois and Indiana, as well as in areas in some other states.

Thatcher said farmers are generally thrilled with the information that can be gathered about what’s going on in their fields, but some now have second thoughts about what they have unthinkingly agreed to when allowing the information to be gathered.

“That’s what a lot of our farmers did, and then they realized when they went back and read the contract that they had signed away a lot of data privacy, data security,” said Thatcher.

The companies all claim to have farmers’ interests at heart, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t grabbing control.

“It’s really interesting, if you dig into this topic, to look at the fact that you may go out and you may hear some company say, ‘we would never share the data,’ and ‘we would never play the market with it,’ and that’s sort of their principles… but if you combine the principles of what those companies say they’re doing with what’s actually in the terms and conditions, they often don’t match very well,” said Thatcher.

Some companies are up-front about the fact that they can do what they want with the data, Thatcher said.

Some of the providers, which aren’t always agriculture-based companies, don’t understand farmer sensitivities, so they don’t get some farmer concerns, such as whether information could make it into the hands of environmental officials.

Thatcher said there is a risk a big player could exploit markets if they gathered enough information that was not publicly known.

“We believe if there was a company that was large enough and had a thousand combines running across the fields of Iowa on the first or second day of harvest, if they wanted to play the market … they’d have a pretty good chance of playing it,” said Thatcher.

Farmers are also exposed to conflicts of interest if the data service provider’s local agent is competing with the farmer, she said. Most of the seed companies that gather data from farmers’ tractors and develop prescriptions to deal with in-field conditions won’t send that prescription directly to the farmer. Instead, they send it to the local dealer.

“What happens if the local seed dealer is competing against me for cash rent,” said Thatcher.

A number of U.S. farm groups have come together to try to see if a standard agreement can be developed so that farmers know what they’re signing and don’t have to cope with multiple different agreements with different companies, Thatcher said.

Big Data offers lots of potential for farmers, but farmers need to ensure it’s not a backdoor through which companies get too much control over farmers and their information.

“We’re very excited about the technology,” said Thatcher.

“We real think this is the opportunity for the next (development as important as) biotechnology to come along and that it’s going to move very quickly, a lot faster than biotech has been able to move.”