Doug Jacobson, director of the ISU Center for Cybersecurity Innovation and Outreach spoke with U.S. Rep. Zach Nunn, an Iowa Republican, about his proposal on a cybersecurity grant program to stop cyberattacks against the U.S. agricultural sector. (Photo by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch)
U.S. Rep. Zach Nunn introduced legislation Tuesday aimed at protecting the agricultural industry from cyberattacks.
The legislation, introduced with Rep. Don Davis, a North Carolina Democrat, proposes creating a national cybersecurity network by establishing five “Regional Agriculture Cybersecurity Centers” across the country, to conduct research and develop security tools for the industry.
Nunn, a Republican representing Iowa’s 3rd District, launched the proposal at the Iowa State University’s Polk County Extension Office. He held a news conference before speaking with ISU employees focused on cybersecurity and agriculture in a roundtable discussion.
Nunn said if the measure becomes law, ISU will play a crucial role in this project as a coordinator and tool maker in efforts to protect the state and region’s agricultural sector from cybersecurity threats.
“One of the things I love about Iowa State is that they have moved out in this area for a long time,” Nunn said. “For them, cybersecurity is not new. It’s inherent in the process that is agricultural engineering.”
Land-grant colleges and universities, many of which focus on agricultural and technical education, would be able to compete for new grants to develop ways to address the attacks businesses are seeing and “immunize our systems in the future,” he said.
The grants would be awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as well as with law enforcement and intelligence agencies and would would fund a “public-private” partnership, he said.
Cybersecurity issues have caused issues for multiple Iowa agriculture businesses in recent years: In 2021, an Ottumwa JBS meat packing plant shut down due to a ransomware attack targeting the company. Later that year, a ransomware group targeted the New Cooperative Inc., a Fort Dodge-based grain cooperative.
Nunn and Davis also introduced legislation earlier this month aimed at protecting rural water systems from cyberattacks.
Doug Jacobson, director of the ISU Center for Cybersecurity Innovation and Outreach, said ISU has already been involved in helping with cybersecurity for agriculture businesses as there’s been an uptick of threats in recent years.
“Those attacks not only go from big corporations, those attacks all the way down to the individual producer in a farm in the middle of Iowa,” Jacobson said. “And so with the increases in things like precision agriculture, GPS, all these digital technologies that really help Iowa become a leading producer, those things also become an increased attack vector for our adversaries.”
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Speaking to reporters, Nunn said agriculture is one of the top 10 industries targeted by cybercriminals, “primarily from foreign adversaries.”
“They attack and threaten our ability to maintain not only our growing capability, but to exploit what we have produced here domestically,” Nunn said. “The dollars that are sold from ransomware from intrusions for intellectual property theft end up funding terrorist organizations, cyber criminals, and even foreign states that are adversaries to U.S. national security.”
Nunn is one of the legislators working on the House agriculture committee this year drafting this year’s farm bill. Alongside this proposal, Nunn said the committee is looking at a “large rollout” adding funding for internet infrastructure in rural America via the ReConnect Program, that would impact both rural communities and farmers. The bill he and Davis have proposed is meant to ensure that the expansion of technological use that comes from new infrastructure is not putting farmers, food producers and manufacturers at risk, he said.
“That means both the mitigation and also the investment to make it work,” Nunn said. “This regionalization provides a real reach-back capability (for farmers and sellers).”
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