USDA to beef up online security

There's more to farming these days than soil, seeds and good weather. In

fact, without a computer, most farmers would not be able to harvest their

crops. With that in mind, the Agriculture Department is taking farming into

the Digital Age with more information online — and better security to protect

it.

"Web-based technology is risky," said William Hadesty, the USDA's first

cyber-security chief. "It is a very good vehicle to provide services, as

long as you can mitigate the security risk."

Farmers need information from Washington, D.C., and not just about the

weather. On a daily basis, they need to know the retail and wholesale price

of crops worldwide, where there are shortages and the latest in agricultural

technology.

And Hadesty, in his new job to protect information flowing over the

Internet, has vowed to make sure that the financial data filed by farmers

to obtain subsidies are protected from unscrupulous eyes.

He's also focusing on making sure every part of the USDA has assessed

the security risks of their divisions and developed adequate security plans,

including the use of firewalls, encryption software and related technology.

USDA has increased its focus on security as farmers have increased their

Internet use.

The number of farmers using the Internet has jumped from 13 percent

in 1997 to 29 percent in 1999, and nearly half of all farmers had access

to a computer for their farm business. The number continues to grow, and

so does the pressure on the USDA to become an electronic agency.

But the USDA is far behind in putting forms and other services online

to help the farmer and rancher. Nor have they made much progress in ensuring

the security of online financial data. "Farmers can't apply for a loan online

today. It would be nice if we were there, but we're not," Hadesty said.

Down on the "Webfarm'

To speed the process, USDA plans to develop a "Webfarm" by the end of

this year — three sites that would give farmers access to information normally

distributed by the 2,600 county agencies nationwide. Instead of driving

into town to file a financial form or get the latest crop reports, a farmer

would be able to do so via the Internet.

But that creates the challenge of protecting sensitive information and

the potential for problems if farmers are not assured that their data is

secure. In any given year, the county agencies distribute more than $50

billion in farm aid, ranging from rural development to conservation.

"We do have sensitive information — some information that would give

people significant economic gain," Hadesty said. "And economic espionage

can never be ruled out."

Hadesty declined to specify how he intends to secure the USDA system,

but he has spent the past two years building the security system at the

Internal Revenue Service. Hadesty hinted at familiar protective devices

such as firewalls and encryption.

The current plans are to have an online pilot project running by next

year and a common computing environment in 2002. But the slow pace of USDA's

online ventures has its critics.

"The biggest obstacle to farmers interacting with USDA over the Internet

is a familiar face — that is, the face of an old and outdated computer environment

at USDA," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Agriculture

Committee's Oversight Subcommittee.

A bigger problem for many farmers is the lack of hookups in rural America.

Congress is considering legislation to speed up broadband hookups that would

give hard-to-serve areas the kind of access to the Internet that urban areas

have.

But the farmer is no different from other consumers when it comes to

security.

"Security is a huge issue. Online information providers have to be able

to prove to the user that security questions have been answered," said Warren

Clark, vice president of marketing for Farms.com, an online company that

allows farmers and agricultural companies to buy and trade everything from

seed to pesticides online (www.farms.com).

USDA CIO Joseph Leo said that security issues are fighting against other

problems to get to the head of the line.

"We are in a farmer's crisis," he said of the current farming problems.

"We had a higher workload than expected. But because of the farmer's crisis,

we had to pull back on our future. We don't have as many people, and we're

not going as fast."

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