Canada’s wide-open farm fields are especially vulnerable to cybersecurity and data privacy attacks and unethical use of data, according to University of Guelph researchers.  

Just as farmers work to protect their crops and livestock from pests and disease, technology providers, governments and farmers need to recognize potential risks associated with cyberattacks and data misuse that come with ever more pervasive “smart farming” technology, said Dr. Rozita Dara, a professor in the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences.  

Effective governance of farm data and technology is key to ensuring food security as farmers look to provide more food for growing populations, she said. Food production needs to increase by 70 per cent to meet the needs of the expected world population by 2050, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.  

“Governance of digital agriculture needs a multi-stakeholder approach,” said Dara. “Farmers and farm managers need to take cybersecurity seriously,” said Dara. “They need to think about what could go wrong.”  

Along with U of G food experts and other researchers in the School of Computer Science (SCS), she has published several papers this year on big data privacy and smart farm information processing.  

Farmers need data privacy, security 

Dr. Rozita Dara

In an article in the journal Sustainability, Dara and her team in the Data Management and Privacy Governance Lab explained that smart farming systems use various sensors to collect data on everything from soil nutrition and irrigation to livestock and poultry monitoring. The systems use machine learning and data mining to analyze that information and help farmers make decisions to improve their practices.  

These information systems are a boon to farmers, said Dara.  

But without adequate security and privacy, the data being collected, stored, transferred or used may become susceptible to attacks. That can make farmers more reluctant to adopt smart farming tools.  

“Cybersecurity for the food supply chain is absolutely important,” she said. “If intruders – say, state- or non-state-funded hackers – disrupt the supply chain, that would be a disaster.”  

The researchers recommend standardizing devices; evaluating trust among farmers, tech providers and other players; establishing legal frameworks to lay out responsibility and accountability; and investigating the use of secure platforms such as blockchain for managing transactions. 

Dara said agriculture technology providers should always safeguard data and ensure responsible use of data. Government can also help to build strong partnerships among supply chain stakeholders and support new and innovative business models and legal frameworks. 

In a paper this year in the journal Agriculture, Dara and her team recommended a smart farming platform to integrate, process and use farm data. 

Wanted: A smart farming platform for integrating data  

A related challenge for farmers is the diversity of agricultural data being captured by various devices including sensor networks, weather stations, cameras and smartphones.  

The platform would allow for data sharing and exchange (called interoperability), reliable data-driven systems, scalability (the ability to expand the system without major redesign), real-time processing of data, and enhanced security and privacy.    

Farm data security is also an ethical issue involving control of and access to information, said Dara. Various groups in the food chain – farmers, food processors, retailers, consumers – may gain and use information in different ways for their own benefit.  

Processors, for instance, may gain financial benefits that may not be shared with farmers, she said. At the other end of the chain, consumers may be unaware of information being collected and used by food retailers in marketing.   

“Are you comfortable with giant food retailers that constantly collect and analyze data and use that information to control the market?” said Dara. “It’s important to understand who has control and use of data. Data can create a differential power imbalance.”  

Other recent papers by her team have explored these ethical aspects.  

One article this year in Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence looked at ethical challenges posed by using artificial intelligence (AI) in farming. The paper recommended various measures for technology providers and policy makers, including addressing farmers’ privacy concerns, ensuring reliable AI performance and reducing AI bias.  

Dara’s team has studied regulations, codes of conduct and best practices for protecting farm data. They have also looked at data licence agreements, which are legal documents intended to inform farmers about data processing practices from collection to use and sharing. Many of these agreements are long, complex, and difficult to read and understand – problems that the group has addressed with various recommendations for improvement.  

Keeping the human element in mind 

Dara said no other Canadian university research group is examining agricultural data systems in the depth and breadth of her lab. For her, a common theme throughout the studies is the need to keep people in mind when designing and using smart farming data and technology.  

“Are we considering humans when we’re using data and who is benefiting from that data?” she said. As farmers cede more control to electronic devices, she said, “Can we build technologies that are more transparent and that consider human beings? Farmers want to know how decisions are being made. Bringing the human aspect into the loop makes them trust the system more.”  

That trust is critical in smart farming she added. If farmers feel they lack control over their own information, they will resist implementing these systems. That in turn poses a threat to future food security for larger world populations, said Dara.  

“If there’s no transparency, farmers stop adopting new technologies. And without those, food production and food security will not be improved.”  

Generally, she said, the agri-food system and its players need to learn to adapt, innovate and work together to improve productivity and sustainability.  

That was the gist of a call to action made by Dara and partner organizations including the Digital Identification and Authentication Council of Canada. “Stakeholders along the supply chain need to work together and establish innovation platforms that can foster learning, broad partnerships and national and international collaboration,” she said. 


Dr. Rozita Dara