Group Works to Make Farm Data Secure & Private

April  21, 2014

As farmers use information technology to grow more crops with less money, many are being asked to share their data. But they're worried about security, privacy, and other problems that could crop up. Earlier this month, the American Farm Bureau Federation met with officials from six, large "agricultural technology" companies, including John Deere and Monsanto, to discuss it.

Mary Kay Thatcher, Senior Director of Congressional Relations for the federation, says for the last 15 years, midwestern corn and soybean farmers have used GPS and weather information to maximize yields. The new question is whether to share their data for agronomists to analyze and help improve efficiency. "If you're a farmer, you don't want to go in and read a data privacy policy from John Deere because that's the kind of equipment you have, and a different one for Monsanto because that's what kind of seed you put in, and a different one from Precision Planting because that's the actual technology that you use and try to figure out what's going on there. We'd like to see if we couldn't get some of these definitions and terms standardized."

Farmers want to know how their data will be used. Thatcher says the vast majority of the 60 companies that offer "ag tech" services say they will make the details anonymous. "Usually it means I'll remove the name, the Social Security number, if I have an address, phone number, et cetera. But lots of times they're not removing the GPS locations because it's the GPS location that says put more fertilizer on this part of the field. Well, if they don't remove that, how confidential is my data? Not very, because if you've got the GPS coordinate, you pretty much know who I am and what farm I'm farming on."

And she says farmers want to know who will have access to all the aggregated information. For example, could the US EPA identify farmers who idle their equipment for what it considers too long to be good for air quality? Or could a seed dealer learn how planting is going for local farmers and use that information to compete in their own fields? Or could investment banks and traders use it to make a lot of money on commodities markets?


(Photo: Screenshot from the John Deere YouTube channel.)