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Biotech, Other Advanced Technology Makes Agriculture Target of Cybercrime


In the escalating war on cybercrime, the U.S. Department of Justice last week unsealed indictments charging Iranian hackers with attacks on 46 major financial institutions that cost victims tens of millions of dollars.

It also unsealed a complaint against the Syrian Electronic Army for activity that sought to harm the economic and national security of the United States and convicted a Chinese businessman for hacking into the computer networks of U.S. defense contractors.

But cybercrime isn’t limited to the big banks and major corporations, Assistant Attorney General John Carlin warned Iowa businesses and university personnel Wednesday in presentations at Iowa State University and Drake University.

“Our entire nation, including America’s heartland here in Iowa, is under constant attack from foreign adversaries and competitors who try to steal trade secrets and other intellectual property, at the expense of our economy and national security,” he told about 50 people at an intellectual property and cybersecurity roundtable at ISU.

It was a fitting setting, he said, because of the growing interest in the biotechnology research being applied to growing and processing crops.

“You are revolutionizing the way America grows crops,” Carlin said. “You invest in biotechnology research to develop higher-yielding, drought-resistant crops. You rely on data from sophisticated soil sensors, satellites and drones to optimize the use of water and pesticides.

“But, while you spend your days innovating, others spend their days on campaigns to steal the fruits of Americans’ labor,” he said. According to one government study, agricultural biotech accounts for $80 billion of a $260 billion biotechnology sector.

One has to look no further than a Tama County cornfield where a farmer found a man digging up genetically-modified seeds. As a result, Carlin said, Mo Hailong, a lawful permanent resident and employee of a China-based seed company, was convicted of participating in a long-term conspiracy to steal trade secrets from DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto, for the purpose of covertly transferring the technology to China.

“The threat of this kind of economic espionage is serious,” Carlin said. Some estimate that, every year, the U.S. loses more than $300 billion from theft of our intellectual property, which results in the loss of an untold numbers of jobs.

Although many of the companies represented don’t have the market share of Monsanto or DuPont Pioneer, they have valuable trade secrets and other information that are being sought – legally and illegally – by competitors and criminal elements, he said.

No industry is off-limits, added Bryan Van Deun of the FBI economic espionage unit.

“No company is too large or two small to fall victim, “If you have something that gives you an edge in the marketplace, someone will want it.”

That’s why Charles Sukup of Sukup Manufacturing attended. The family-owned maker of grain bins and grain handling equipment based in Sheffield does business in about 80 countries.

“A lot of people wouldn’t think we would be on the forefront,” he said. His concern is not just Sukup’s products, but its manufacturing processes. “You hear that if you sell one product you will see very good copies right away.”

That’s often the case, Van Deun said. A foreign company will reverse engineer a product and undercut the American manufacturer’s price, which not only reduces the company’s profits, but can lead to job loss.

“I’m looking at how much this should be on our radar,” he said. “I’ll probably have a discussion with our IT people when I get back.”

Trade secrets are vital to Diamond V Mills in Cedar Rapids, which does research, development and delivery of unique products for animal nutrition and health, scientist Victor Nesereko said. The company “is certainly more cautious today than in the past.”

Even so, companies should not be lulled into believing there are cyber security products that “are high enough or deep enough to keep them out,” Carlin said referring to intellectual property thieves.

He emphasized the importance of cooperating with law enforcement and prosecutors, again citing the Iowa seed corn case.

“The biggest message I have is one of cooperation,” said Jason Griess, assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa. “There’s no way to be successful without the cooperation of victim companies.”

Each of the 56 FBI field offices has a Strategic Partnership Program coordinator that works with business and industry to fight cyber security threats. In the Omaha office, which serves Iowa, that is Robert Georgi at (402) 493-8688.

“Nothing is too small to report. Somebody digging in a cornfield. We take it seriously,” Griess said.

Source: Agri Marketing

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