Privacy concerns remain for big data

House Agriculture Committee features pros and cons of Big Data and helping protecting farmers throughout the process.

Big steps have been made in helping farmers better understand the potential of improved knowledge and help to the bottom line with the “Big Data” revolution, but it also bears important considerations of privacy and data rights.

In a House Agriculture Committee hearing Wednesday, members heard from a panel of experts including those who have been actively involved in the very quickly developing new wave of technology.

Today’s technology affords farmers the ability to instantaneously collect data about almost every facet of their cropping operations from planting through harvest. Farmers are reporting higher yields, fewer inputs, more efficiency and higher profits thanks to technology.

House Agriculture Committee chairman Michael Conaway opened up the hearing noting that Big Data has been called a “game changer for agriculture.” However, at least one of the reasons why potential benefits have not yet been fully realized is because farmers and ranchers are getting lots of information from lots of different places.

Missouri Farm Bureau president Blake Hurst told the committee that farmers and ranchers see tremendous benefits with technology, but can’t turn a blind eye to the privacy concerns that remain.

While farmers are eager to adopt these groundbreaking tools, they are not willing to simply hand over their sensitive business information - nor should they have to. Farmers have the right to know what information is collected, how exactly their data is used and who else has access to it. “It’s then up to farmers to determine whether the benefits outweigh the privacy and security risks associated with usage,” Hurst said.

The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and its partners are currently developing tools to help farmers evaluate privacy agreements and data storage options. When farmers and businesses work together, Hurst told the committee, they can “expand their return on investment and unlock the power of ag data.”

Shannon Ferrell, associate professor at Oklahoma State University explained, “Many agricultural producers have concerns about their rights in this data and their privacy if they choose to share their information to take advantage of the numerous tools afforded by the Big Data revolution as they struggle with how to balance the advantages of automatic and continuous uploading of that data to other parties such as equipment dealers, input vendors, and consultants with the potential loss of confidentiality in such transfers.”

The law protects the privacy of most producer information that USDA gathers, but it does not cover information gathered by private entities. Conaway noted this has enormous implications that can, among other things, affect the commodities market, land values and how farm policies operate, and potentially expose producers to frivolous and costly environmental litigation.

Current federal privacy laws do not directly address one’s privacy rights with respect to information like agricultural data, Ferrell shared. He said ways in which Congress can directly address privacy issues in this field is to “enact legislation clearly and narrowly defining the circumstances under which production of agricultural data can be compelled by federal agencies and the circumstances under which agricultural data held by federal agencies can be disclosed.

He also said strengthening the safeguards preventing the inadvertent disclosure of agricultural data held by federal agencies or the unauthorized access of that data by outside parties, citing previous mishaps by the Environmental Protection Agency’s releasing livestock producers’ information under a Freedom of Information Act request and groups such as the Environmental Working Group publishing farm subsidy information.

Billy Tiller, co-founder of the Grower Information Services Cooperative, testified about the premise that data generated from the farming operation has tremendous value and farmers should be in the best position to harvest this value.   

“Farmers need a data aggregator and data integrator to help them reap all the benefits of big data and its implications to agriculture. We cannot just sit on the sidelines and wonder how it will all turn out, trusting that the tremendous for-profit agriculture technology providers will use our information only for our good rather than returns to their own share-holders. We need to be proactive by joining forces with groups such as GiSC, to give farmers a voice,” Tiller said in his written testimony.

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