USDA serious about keeping information under wraps

Commodity market sensitive | Agricultural statistics are used by commodity traders and can affect markets, so timely release is essential

WASHINGTON, D.C. — It’s not easy for reporters and government staff to enter the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s lockup facilities.

They must have their credentials checked, pass a security guard’s inspection, go through alarmed doors and hand over cellphones and digital devices.

They also face a network of surveillance and data protection measures that they can’t even see.

“We won’t tell you everything that we do. That’s part of security,” said Hubert Hamer, director of the statistics division for the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, as he led a group of agricultural journalists through the agency’s lockup facilities in the USDA building near the U.S. Capitol Building.

However, he said sensors within the electronically blacked-out area can pick up any signal from a concealed cellphone and locate it through triangulation.

As well, electronic countermeasures would pounce if someone attempted to open a wireless internet data connection within the facility during a lockup. Security would launch a denial-of-service attack and stop it working.

The USDA is serious about protecting the secrecy of its agricultural data until the millisecond it is officially released.

“No elevators. No phones. No outside connections to the world. Everything is self-contained,” said Hamer.

The USDA’s agencies regularly release statistics that the world markets use for trading. This makes them both eagerly anticipated and the source of great value to anyone who gets access to them early.

The newswire services focus relentlessly on reducing the shreds of a second it takes to turn around the crucial numbers once they are re-leased.

Reporters in the lockup fire out the numbers to their newsrooms and digital readers the second they are allowed to do so.

This is sharp contrast to a few decades ago, when reporters had to stand behind a line on the floor and run for a bank of phones the second a report was released.

Reporters are often allowed into the lockup in the hours before important crop production and stocks reports are released. They must hand over cellphones and other communications devices and sign confidentiality agreements in exchange for receiving advanced access to the information.

Once in, they can’t leave until the report is released.

The same goes for USDA analysts, although they are generally there much longer.

Hamer said top USDA analysts might be brought into the lockup at midnight before a crop production report to be released at noon, 12 hours later. They go in with all the data from all the sources that they will require and then have no further contact with the outside world, including any other part of the USDA.

They are as cut off as the journalists.

“When we go into lockup, we actually physically disconnect ourselves,” said Hamer, who has been with the USDA for 33 years.

At the appointed release time, the USDA’s chief economist and agriculture secretary (or representative) are allowed into the lockup and briefed by the department’s top analysts, who made the final decisions on numbers.

Then the report is released and the analysts and reporters are allowed to leave.

“No one’s leaving till noon (for any planned 12 p.m. release),” Hamer said. “Until the clock hits noon and… the doors open, (then) you see whether it rained or snowed or whatever last night.”

The lockup controls were tightened after report information was inadvertently released early by a glitch in a USDA server, but also to keep it current with advancing technology.

Hamer said the sensor network has already caught unreported cellphones. Technology exists to make cellphones inoperative, but the USDA failed to receive approval to use it because it is generally just allowed for the U.S. military.

Some have argued that worries about security and the constant efforts to ensure no one is sneaking out information early suggests that the USDA should end the practice of giving agricultural journalists access to important reports. However, Hamer said the department thinks it’s better to have some of the earliest coverage of important reports come from journalists who have had time to think about the numbers before they reach the public.

“We consider that responsible, allowing responsible journalism.”

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