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Rural industries failing to protect against cyber threats

By Catherine Knowles, 06 Jul 2021

A new AgriFutures Australia report by BDO explores the cyber threats facing Australia’s rural industries, following two significant attacks in the past 12 months.

The BDO report titled 'Cyber security threats are we prepared?’, found that agriculture, fisheries and forestry industries need to more proactively manage their cybersecurity.

For many producers, simple solutions such as automatic software updates, antivirus software and multi-factor authentication are all that is needed.

However, sophisticated, digitally-enabled businesses, such as intensive farm operations and automated farming systems, may need more complex security in place, the report finds.

Rural industries now rely on technology and innovation systems at unprecedented levels, and today almost every producer will use some form of technology, such as a mobile phone or laptop, to do business, the researchers state.

In fact, according to the report, in the last decade agtech investment has surged, with more than US$6.7 billion invested in the last five years alone, including more than US$1.9 billion in the last 18 months.

However, Australia's rural industries are at the beginning of the cybersecurity journey.

The cybersecurity survey conducted in early 2021 as a part of this research showed that the average confidence and understanding of cyber security and risk was 3.5 out of 5. Only 16% of respondents had an incident response plan in place.

BDO Australia cybersecurity partner John Borchi says, "Rural businesses are now in a similar position to where the health system was five years ago, where the digitisation of patient records resulted in them becoming a prime target for cyber criminals.

"The health sector saw the risk that came with digitisation of records and moved to rapidly improve and standardise cyber security risks.

"This included allocating sufficient funds and focusing on the fundamentals of cyber security, whilst outsourcing functions that could not be performed in-house."

AgriFutures Australia manager for national rural issues, Georgina Townsend, echoes Borchi's comments.

She says it's very important to support the agricultural sector in identifying cyber vulnerabilities and to take swift action to remedy any weaknesses.

Townsend says, "Cybersecurity threats on farms can be far reaching and span personal privacy, sensitive farm information, and even IP related to skills, knowledge and data from farming systems."

The 2020 malware attack that shut down Australian and New Zealand wool sales, and the 2021 cyber attack on global meat processing giant JBS, are two high profile incidents that have cost the Australian agricultural sector dearly, she says. 

As threats rise in number and severity, rural industries need to understand their own cyber fragility and prepare accordingly.

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