The wild west of agricultural data

Canadian agriculture is in the midst of a sea change that stems from the digitization of farm production data.

The sector was a little tardy in showing up for the digital revolution, but most growers now use techniques powered by complex algorithms and massive datasets.

Telematics, cloud storage and processing, internet of things (IOT), sensors, as well as online tools and mobile apps are major components of farm management services and equipment of the production line.

These so-called big data tools provide an incredible ability to gather information and quickly use it to guide farming decisions.

However, many farmers are now concerned their privacy is being undermined by sharing their agricultural information.

Heather Knapik helps manage a 6,200-acre grain farm near Acadia Valley, Alta., and she said there have recently been many discussions over the kitchen table about the security of their production data.

She said combines now have smart harvest technology such as yield and quality monitors, seeding equipment records GPS locations and product inputs, and this information is often automatically sent to servers outside Canada.

“No matter how you look at the personal situation, we can all agree that we shouldn’t be allowing this information outside the country in real time. It has the potential to swing markets and directly affect the Canadian economy,” she said.

For instance, Knapik said most of the exportable mustard in the world comes from Canada, so the crop here sets the world price. If a company had access to real-time harvest information from mustard producers, they would have a huge market advantage over Canadian producers.

“I’m worried about the Canadian agricultural situation being well known by international marketing companies then it is by us. I don’t have access to real-time data on how many farmers are growing what in my area, but equipment manufacturers do,” Knapik said.

If large international marketing companies were able to access real-time harvest and seeding information, their analysis would be light years ahead of Statistics Canada reports.

She said international marketing companies have at their disposal much more computing power than Canadian interests do.

“It would be very unfair to have Chinese and American grain marketing companies know more than I do, and that’s going to happen,” Knapik said.

She also works in instrumentation where she designs systems in an industrial environment.

She said other industries take data security much more seriously than agriculture does.

“Every oil and gas company or processor or manufacturer has gas going to their site, you don’t see them just throwing their usage on the internet, or have ATCO (Power) just send a bill. That doesn’t happen, and why is that? But we are doing it now with this stuff,” Knapik said.

She said indirect measures such as gas use are routinely used by market analysts to chart production and consumption, and the information Canadian farmers are sharing is much more precise.

Relying on clouds for data storage and processing is at best semi-trustworthy, because users cannot control all details of the cloud’s protocols, said Rongxing Lu, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Senior Member, and Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Computer Science at the University of New Brunswick.

Lu researches the technical aspects of digital security and he said privacy of data stored in a cloud is greatly enhanced through defining strict access control protocols, and encrypting all data before it is stored in a cloud.

“So all data are in software text, not plain text in cloud. Then we can still make use of data, but we still need to have some research work, for example how to run some machinery and data mining over encrypted data,” Lu said.

Developing techniques to store encrypted data, but also access and use the data in a secure way, is a focus of the research community Lu participates in.

He said he is unaware of Canadian laws specifically designed to protect farm data, and that it is largely up to the industry.

Source: Farm Credit Canada’s Farm Data Usage Vision Survey October 2018.

“Each company has to define the individual rule for data storing and excess confidentiality,” Lu said.

He said if data is properly encrypted then it doesn’t matter if it’s stored outside Canada, because only the user who has the key can read or use the data.

However, from a technical perspective, it is impossible to know if the key to your data is being shared.

Many agricultural services have built their digital tools in a way that information can be easily shared with other services.

For instance, farm management software is built to integrate with agronomy software.

However, Lu said, the more information is shared the more vulnerable it is.

“For each step we need to consider the security of the data.”

He said the Canadian government has to take proactive steps to protect industry data, instead of trying to fix a problem after a failure.

“The government needs to take action to help or guide industry on how to protect data. We need to provide some solutions,” Lu said.

“Currently, I don’t see it happening now. But I think the government has realized the importance of this problem.”

Farmers are also becoming aware there are significant issues when it comes to the security of their data.

A recent Farm Credit Canada (FCC) survey of 2,001 farmers though the company’s Vision Panel found one quarter of farmers are less comfortable with sharing their data than they were two years ago.

In the survey, 58 percent of respondents said their comfort level is unchanged with sharing data with organizations outside the farm, 25 percent are less comfortable sharing data, while 17 percent are more comfortable sharing data.

Source: Farm Credit Canada’s Farm Data Usage Vision Survey October 2018.

Fred Wall, vice-president of marketing at FCC, said he was most surprised by the amount of passion farmers had on the topic of data security, which was evident in the closing sections that asked for additional comments.

“What we would normally expect when we have an open-ended survey, we would expect maybe 30 to 35 percent to complete it. Here we were routinely over 80,” Wall said

“And a lot of detail. We heard about the nightmare fuel, essentials of ‘a company just shared my data in an unauthorized way or with somebody I would never have shared it with myself.’ ”

Concerns over the security of data being stored outside Canada are valid, according to a Government of Canada White Paper titled Data Sovereignty and Public Cloud.

This is because the data stored outside Canada is subject to the laws of the county it’s stored in.

The White Paper goes so far as to say that all government of Canada information should be stored within Canada: “Personal information is only stored in and accessed from inside Canada,” because “under some foreign laws, disclosure of (government of Canada) data could take place without notice to the (government of Canada).”

It is difficult for farmers to choose agriculture products that keep all information in secure servers within Canada because many major players, including equipment manufacturers, are international.

As well, even if a server is located within Canada, that doesn’t mean it is secure.

So what is being done to protect data generated from agriculture industry in Canada?

Agriculture Canada said in an email response that getting the most out of the latest precision agriculture technologies rests on sharing detailed data.

Source: Farm Credit Canada’s Farm Data Usage Vision Survey October 2018.

However, “How the data generated on-farm is used or shared beyond this purpose depends on agreements between farmers and their equipment providers,” it stated.

“AAFC has begun consulting with other departments and international organizations to help determine what role government should play.”

It appears that farmers are currently on their own when it comes to entering into agreements with business about ownership and use of data.

But most farmers don’t know what their contracts they’ve signed say in respect to data, according to the same FCC survey.

In the survey respondents were asked to select the statement that best describes most of their agreements and contracts with respect to data: Twenty-six percent said the contract expressly states who owns the data and how data will be used, nine percent responded the contract did not state who owns the data or how it will be used, while 65 percent responded they are not sure what their contracts say in respect to data.

Source: Farm Credit Canada’s Farm Data Usage Vision Survey October 2018.

So what exactly are the laws in Canada when it comes to protecting farmers’ rights to privacy of their farm production data?

Agricultural data produced in Canada is not within the realm of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, according to an email response sent by the Commissioner’s office.

The Competition Bureau applies the Competition act, and its deceptive marketing provisions “may apply” to the collection of data by all firms, including agricultural companies, the Competition Bureau stated in an email.

“Big data can have implications for other policy areas beyond competition law but the Bureau must restrict its activities to its mandate as set out in the Competition Act,” the Bureau stated.

However, when ask if a company is in violation of the Competition Act if it uses a farmer’s production information in a way the farmer did not consent to, the Competition Bureau stated:

“We are not able to provide comment on whether these specific types of conduct could represent a contravention of the Competition Act or not,” the Bureau stated.

“The Bureau has not brought any cases specifically addressing the misuse of data in the farming industry. We cannot speak to whether private cases on the topic may have been brought before Canada’s courts.”

Farmers could potentially bring a civil suit against the companies if their data was used in an unauthorized way if they found out their data was shared.

Source: Farm Credit Canada’s Farm Data Usage Vision Survey October 2018.

The first stumbling block for this to succeed would be proving the data was shared, which would be difficult. Another problem would be proving damages, and a third problem would be going up against teams of lawyers representing large international companies.

Wall said he’s not asking for any legislation to protect farm data because he sees the market addressing privacy concerns, because farmers will choose vendors who take data privacy seriously.

“If you select providers and suppliers who are clear with you, they will continue to be clear with you. If you tolerate contracts that aren’t clear, or business models you’re not comfortable with, you’ll probably get a lot more of that,” Wall said.

To show its customers FCC takes data security seriously the company has gone through a third party verification, called Ag Data Transparent, for its latest apps.

“They developed these rigorous principles and a third party verification system where you work through them in all your contracts. They essentially say, ‘this isn’t clear,’ does a farmer own their data or not? And they make sure you tighten it up, in plain language. Anybody can go to the Ag Data Transparent site and get the simplest possible explanation of their contracts and who’s passed,” Wall said.

FCC will not allow other apps or digital tools to connect to their systems unless they also achieve an Ag Data Transparent certification.

Wall said the days of farmers approving of the use of their data via a contracts’ fine print are coming to an end.

“I don’t like the future of that business model,” Wall said.

“Producer are become more aware of their data being an asset in and of itself, that the data is valued. So once that happens people will ask more questions.”

Knapik said a third party verification that makes it clear who owns the data and how it can be used is step in the right direction, but it’s not enough to protect the industry.

“That’s great and everything (Ag Data Transparent certification), but it’s useless if there is no law backing it up,” Knapik said.

“If it’s not illegal they’ll just do it (use data in an unauthorized way).”

She said security breaches are common and perpetrators often face fewer or no consequences.

“We’re farmers. We want it (data stored) at home. I don’t want to connect to their websites,” she said.

“I want to load their app on my pad and run my machine with it and not have it connected to the Internet. I just don’t trust them.”

Do farmers trust their data is safe?

Farm Credit Canada commissioned a survey to determine how much trust farmers have in data management in Canada.
These are some of the findings:

  • 25 percent have become less comfortable sharing their data with organizations outside the farm in the past two years.
    (58% reported no change in comfort level, 17% are more comfortable compared to two years ago.)
  • 71 percent say the conditions governing the use and treatment of data by an outside party are extremely or very important .
    (20% said it was moderately important, while 8% said it was slightly or not at all important.)
  • 65 percent of respondents were unsure of their agreements or contracts regarding data use and protection.
    (265 said their contracts expressly stated who owns their data and/or how it would be used while 9% said their contracts did not specify this information.)

Some comments from the anonymous survey respondents:

  • “The companies I work with in regards to my data have strict policies in how they deal with said data. I spent a fair amount of time doing my research before I began sending our data to them.”
  • “I actually don’t know how the data collected from me is being handled. Even if they claim not to share or sell it, how do I know.”
  • “Really, it comes down to trust. Do I want the company to have all my data? If I trust this company, I would, so that they could work with me and help me in my operation.”


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