Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why Agricultural Technology Is So Susceptible To Being Hacked


When hackers attacked meatpacking giant JBS, they temporarily knocked out almost a quarter of U.S. beef processing. That wasn't the first time food processors have been targeted, and it likely won't be the last. As Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, the food system offers some juicy morsels for cybercriminals.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: The ransomware attack forced the world's largest meat supplier to pause beef production in the U.S. and some of its poultry and pork plants as well. That triggered a meat supply scare. This on the heels of the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack that drove up prices and caused gas shortages on the East Coast. Allan Liska is with the cybersecurity firm Recorded Future.

ALLAN LISKA: To me, it's a national security problem, but I see everything in the - through the lens of security. It is also a national economic problem because we saw gas prices go up. We'll probably see meat prices go up.

MORRIS: Liska notes that hospitals and schools, all sorts of factories have been targeted by ransomware attacks recently. But he says food processing is especially vulnerable. His firm recorded 40 such attacks on food and beverage companies last year.

LISKA: Now, the problem is that a lot of these food manufacturing plants have a lot of the weaknesses that ransomware actors are looking for.

MORRIS: Weak links like the computer networks that run the internal workings of the plants, the operating technology systems. Liska says those systems keep everything humming at maximum efficiency, right down to the knife-sharpening schedules at a place like JBS. While they tend to have very limited exposure to the internet, they can be easy targets once hackers find a way in. And he says that security for internal systems tends to be lax. Reused passwords are common. Credentials for meatpacking plants are readily available on the black market. And Glen Sagers, who teaches cybersecurity at Southern Utah University, says the industrial control systems we're talking about are ancient.

GLEN SAGERS: Technologies there that are 20 or 30 years old and therefore not as well protected, they were designed in a kinder, gentler time, if you will. It becomes easier to hack them.

MORRIS: Sagers says the systems have been updated but not hardened against hackers, or at least not enough. He's working with the U.S. Department of Labor to train workers to secure industrial systems. That work will take time.

Meg King, who heads the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Wilson Center, says the good news is that there really aren't that many gangs capable of massive ransomware attacks. And she says the government has a couple of clear lines of attack against them. The first one is to pressure Russia to stop harboring ransomware attackers. The other is to make it harder for them to do business by, say, making it easier to trace money paid in cryptocurrency.

MEG KING: I do think that if we take the right steps now, which I expect that the Biden administration will try to do, we can address this and try to cut off some of the bigger actors. But until we do that, we are where we are.

MORRIS: And where we are, King says, is likely facing more ransomware attacks, especially on the companies that process our food.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAIA'S "REMEMBRANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris
Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.