Researchers warn modern smart farm machinery is vulnerable to malicious hackers, leaving global supply chains exposed to risk.

A new risk analysis done by the University of Cambridge, published in Nature Machine Intelligence, warns that future use of artificial intelligence in agriculture comes with substantial potential risks for farms, farmers and food security that are at poorly understood and underappreciated.

“The idea of intelligent machines running farms is not science fiction,” says Dr. Asaf Tzachor, a researcher behind the study, “but so far no one seems to have asked the question: ‘Are there any risks associated with a rapid deployment of agricultural AI?’”

One such risk became a reality when Russian soldiers stole equipment from a Ukrainian John Deere dealer only to have the manufacturer lock it down, making it unusable. Other risks include hackers exploiting flaws in agricultural hardware, such as sprayers using artificial intelligence, drones and robotic harvesters. This year, the FBI and other governments warned farmers about cyberattacks, such as those against agricultural cooperatives in the 2021 harvest season. AGCO also fell victim to a ransomware attack this month that impacted some of its production facilities.

The Cambridge researchers have a catalogue of risks that must be considered as smart agriculture continues to evolve. The team suggests using “white hat hackers” to help companies uncover any security failings during the development phase so that systems can be safeguarded against real hackers.

One such hacker, known by the alias “Sick Codes,” recently revealed to the BBC that he had discovered weaknesses in the software of agricultural manufacturer John Deere. He said he found a way to access company information and machine data through websites and apps, and he reported the issue. 

James Johnson, John Deere’s global chief information security officer, says those weaknesses did “not pose a threat to customers or their machines.”

“No company, including John Deere, is immune to vulnerabilities, but we are deeply committed and work tirelessly to safeguard our customers and the role they play in the global food supply chain,” Johnson adds.

Automated agricultural systems already gather information and support farmers’ decision-making to make operations more efficient, saving labor costs, optimizing production, and minimizing loss and waste. AI technologies and precision agriculture also promise substantial benefits for food and nutritional security in the face of climate change and a growing global population.

“AI is being hailed as the way to revolutionize agriculture,” says Dr Seán ÓhÉigeartaigh, co-author of the research. “As we deploy this technology on a large scale, we should closely consider potential risks and aim to mitigate those early on in the technology design.”