FBI warns of ransomware attacks against food supply; offers cyber hygiene and PC security tips. Plus Pinal County's risk

Jeff Kronenfeld

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The screen of a computer infected by ransomware.(Damien Meyer/Getty Images)

By Jeff Kronenfeld / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

(Pinal County, AZ) The FBI warned of an increased risk of ransomware attacks against agricultural coops, which could disrupt food supply chains, in a private industry notification issued on April 20.

The notification reported six such attacks in the Fall of 2021 and two more in early 2022. A multi-state grain company and six grain coops were among the victims.

One company detected and stopped two attempts to initiate ransomware attacks. Unfortunately, others weren't so lucky, with damages ranging from the loss of administrative functions to complete halts in production.

While the agricultural sectors in Pinal County and Arizona have avoided such high-profile problems so far, FBI Special Agent Suzanne Allen warns that many businesses and individuals across the county and state are regularly victims of cybercrime.

“Ransomware attacks occur every day to companies large and small, and there are different ransomware actors at play here, from criminals to nation-state actors,” Allen said.

“Director [of the FBI] Wray has heavily encouraged partnership with the private sector so that we can be aware of what companies are experiencing, step in to assist companies when they do become victims of ransomware, and educate them so they can take recommendations on how to prevent falling victim to ransomware.”

How at risk are Pinal County farms?

Blase Evancho, the assistant in extension - field crop systems for the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, offered some ideas on why the Copper State’s agricultural sector hasn’t been hit as hard by cybercrime as others.

Evancho pointed to the smaller average size of farms in Arizona and Pinal County versus those in the Midwest. Further, larger operations tend to have more money and up-to-date technology, making them more vulnerable and tempting targets.

"In Arizona, I work with several farmers that either have just adopted GIS automated driving systems in their tractors or are still all human-powered, so no guidance system in the tractors,” Evancho explained. “With that less technology comes less potential for people to hack into their systems or things like that. And it's a lot easier to notice, if you only have a couple 100 acres, that something's not right.”

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An IT researcher points to the screen of a computer infectd by ransomware.(Damien Meyer/Getty Images)

Threats from cascading effects

Even if farms in Arizona aren’t damaged directly, knock-on effects from attacks elsewhere could still impact food production and availability.

The FBI private industry notification points out that grain is also used as animal feed, meaning interruptions in the supply could reduce availability and raise prices for ranchers.

Further, it warns that dairy and protein processing facilities are also inviting targets due to the potential product spoilage caused by even short shutdowns.

The sale of livestock and their products accounted for between two-thirds and three-quarters of Pinal County’s total annual agricultural sales from 2012 to 2016, according to an economic contribution analysis from the University of Arizona’s Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics.

The FBI document warned that the inability to get fertilizers, farm equipment, or seeds during the planting season are other potential cascading effects. Any of these could threaten farm production in Pinal County and further afield.

FBI offers cyber hygiene tips

Special Agent Allen offered several cyber hygiene tips, like using multifactor authentication, choosing strong passwords, regularly backing up data, and preparing an incident recovery plan that includes alerting the FBI about what happened.

“We always encourage folks who are victims in a ransomware attack to make a report on our Internet Crimes Complaint Center,” Allen said. “That way, it comes into a repository, and we can address it at a global level.”

Other tips listed in the FBI private industry notification include avoiding using the same password for multiple accounts, keeping software — especially anti-virus software — up to date, disabling hyperlinks in emails, and using a virtual private network.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency offers no-cost cyber hygiene services to the agricultural industry or other economic sectors considered critical to daily life.

Whether on a Pinal County farm or the world's largest petroleum pipeline, for Special Agent Allen and the rest of the FBI, the war against cybercrime is fought on many fronts every day.

“The FBI is really trying to address the whole cybercriminal economy, not just necessarily the actors demanding the ransom,” Special Agent Allen said. “We're also focused on the payments, the dark websites that are making ransomware available, [and] the botnets.”

To report a cyber attack to the FBI or learn more about current threats and how to prevent them, visit the Internet Crimes Complaint Center.

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Jeff is an award-winning freelance journalist covering news, business, science and the arts. His work has been published in Discover Magazine, Vice, the Phoenix New Times and other outlets.

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