The North American food system found itself struggling last week under the weight of news that JBS, the world’s largest meat packer, had been hacked by miscreants. The company temporarily halted some operations to deal with resulting computer network issues.
Computer criminals based in Russia have been targeting North American businesses and extorting payments in exchange for granting re-access to the owners’ systems.
No matter how many facilities and diverse operations companies have, the computer network is a shared weakness. They also share important relationships with the greater economies they support.
Most recently, the targets were food, agriculture and energy — things the public won’t do without.
A few weeks ago, Colonial Pipeline, which controls distribution of 45 percent of the American east coast’s liquid fuels, was hit by a computer ransomware demand for millions of dollars. The company shut down its operations for safety reasons until it could resolve the issue.
Consumers across the region began panic buying and hoarding fuel. Prices jumped dramatically.
Last week’s attack on JBS, likely by extortionists working in the same region, caused that business to shut down in North America and Australia for a day and half. Each week JBS in the United States and Canada has the capacity to process more than 200,000 cattle, 500,000 hogs, 45 million chickens and 80,000 other stock.
Livestock futures prices jumped as the news broke. In meat aisles across North America, the public started to experience the supply and demand wave caused by a 22 percent reduction in last week’s production from a company that represents one-fifth of American processing.
This attack and others exploit weaknesses in computer networks. Historically these were typically used to steal data that could be sold for use in financial frauds. In some cases, hackers threatened the public release of data or an override of computer-controlled operations.
Now the ability to encrypt computers’ storage systems, effectively locking out the owners, seems to be a more reliable source of income for hackers, when combined with digital currency platforms that create untraceable payments.
Add a friendly host nation from which to operate and there are few limits to how much money can be made and how much damage can be done.
In 2019, the government of Nunavut was held hostage by a ransomware attack and only released with a payment to the criminals. Hospitals and retailers became easy targets in North America. Statistics Canada reported in 2020 that one in five businesses was affected by cybercrimes.
The recent, large-scale U.S. attacks were made by criminals using software solutions designed by Darkside and REvil, operating in Russia, and are significant threats to our national security. So far the federal response is to create a central coordinating policing office within the RCMP that brings together municipal and national efforts. But that won’t be complete until 2023.
JBS operations in Canada and Australia were likely affected by association with the computer systems the company has in common with its American business. However, what happens in one part of the food system affects a global food complex driven by supply and demand in commodity markets.
Concentration of ownership and operations enhances the risk. While farmers might not be able to protect the giants of our food system, they can look at their own computerized processes and consider where they might be vulnerable.
Then they should encourage their elected representatives to invest in specialized policing and the regulation of the crypto currencies that make the crimes attractive.
Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.