‘Big Data’ On Farm Brings Questions About Privacy
Source: Christine Souza, California Farm
For more than a decade, beginning with the advent of global
positioning systems, the use of precision agriculture on the farm has
transformed into a whole style of technology that uses computers and satellites
to know where the operator is in the field and then deliver the exact inputs
needed to that location, says the California Farm Bureau Federation TODAY. This technology helps farmers
improve yields, decrease inputs and reduce costs.
YET, some observers warn growers to understand what they are
agreeing to regarding the use of their private data before approving a
company's terms of service.
"The new big-data technology provides a huge
opportunity for farmers to increase their production and their efficiencies.
However, it is important that farmers read the fine print and understand the
privacy issues that surround release of their data," said Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director of
congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation.
AFBF has reported an increasing amount of discussion about
the ownership of data from various GPS planting and harvesting monitoring
technology. For example, several seed and/or equipment companies offer farmers
the option to store data from their monitors "on the cloud," that is,
on a Web-based service rather than on a personal computer.
If farmers select this option, the companies can access the
data. In some cases, the companies will have real-time access to planting and
harvest data. In other cases, broadband capabilities in rural areas may not be
advanced enough for that to happen.
While some companies aggregate the data and make it
available to all who provide it, AFBF said it appears there is not a policy in
place to ensure that the companies don't use the data to their benefit—and that
they might indeed be able to manipulate the market with enough real-time data.
In late 2013, AFBF and a number of state Farm Bureaus met
with agricultural technology providers that are collecting and using "big
data" in their marketing and services to farmers. During these
discussions, AFBF reported, it became clear that big-data technology would
expand at a rapid rate in the next few growing seasons.
AFBF suggests that farmers consider the following regarding
the use and privacy of data:
- Do you own the data?
- How will the data be
used and what benefits will you receive from allowing a provider to include
data in a database?
- Will you control
management of the data?
- What is aggregated
data and how can it protect the farmer?
- How can a farmer's
"anonymized," or non-personal, data be traced back to the farm?
- Can you stop sharing
data once you agreed to share?
- Who else might have
access to the data, and can it be released to the public or a third party?
- What is the value of
data to the farmer and what is the value of the data to the company?
Big data offers a way to provide more efficiencies and
opportunities for higher profits, AFBF said, but growers should weigh those
benefits against the additional costs associated with analyzing the data
through some other means, and of loss of data ownership and privacy.
"I started our Precision Ag Institute here 10 years
ago, and at that point, there really still wasn't a grower willing to give out
their yield data or any of that type of information. They wanted to own and
control that data," said Clint Cowden, agriculture science and technology
instructor at West Hills Community College in Coalinga. "There are
definitely some growers that have some (data privacy) concerns, because they are
doing some really interesting things with nitrogen management, fertilizer
management and seed rates."
Diversified farmer Cannon Michael of Bowles Farming Co. in
Los Banos has used precision technology since 2001 for the crops he grows, including
cotton, alfalfa, processing tomatoes and grain.
"We use precision technology to really focus on
maximizing the use of our inputs, such as chemicals, using variable-rate
spraying and amendments to target soil areas that need certain things that others
don't, really to fine-tune our program," Michael said.
Michael said he is generally not concerned about the privacy
of his farming and personal data.
"Currently, I don't know many services that are asking
people for a lot of personal information. Whether going on a website that gives
you commodity prices or imagery or whatever it is, your data is not safe even
when you are thinking it is safe," he said. "You just have to be
really careful what you put out there. If you have a GIS system and know how to
use it, there's a lot of data that is out there already. There's imagery of
everybody's farms that is out there for the taking."
Even so, Michael added, "A general message of care is
not a bad one."
The use of outside companies to process or interpret information
gleaned from precision technology on the farm, Cowden said, will need to be
decided by each individual farmer.
"For some growers, if they are really doing a lot of
cutting-edge things and if that is their business plan to give them a
competitive edge, then they absolutely need to keep the data in-house,"
Cowden said. "For most of our growers, the benefit to whatever commodity
they are growing—getting that information out there and pooling it and letting
people that can do the geostatistics that they are probably not able to do
themselves—it is going to be much better for the commodity. That information
will trickle back to the grower and they will become more profitable in the
Labels: Big Data on Farm Brings Questions about Privacy, California Ag News, Farm GPS benefits and drawbacks, THE BIG DILEMMA: USE GPS OR KEEP PRIVACY?