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Cybersecurity Threats to the Food Supply Chain

Cyber Threats to Food Supply

Cyber Threats to Food Supply

Cyber Brings the Opportunity of Large-scale Adversarial Interference in Food Supplies

When Smithfield Foods closed its Sioux Falls pork processing plant – joining other meat and poultry closures from Tyson Foods, Cargill and JBS USA – headlines suggested that the country was ‘perilously close to the edge’ of food shortages. So, just how safe is the food supply?

The recent closures have been forced by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is likely to be a transient risk, but all modern plants face an ever-present consistent risk from cyber-attack. COVID-19 has merely focused minds on an under-considered risk: how safe is the food supply chain?

It’s a question that needs to be asked. Food supply is a fundamental pillar of ordered societies, and a catastrophic lack of food would rapidly lead to social disorder. This would likely be more rapid and severe in the western democracies that have not experienced serious food shortages for more than 70 years since the end of World War II.

Cyber risk and threat

There is no risk if there is no threat. The first question, then, is whether there is a cyber threat to food supply. Are cyber criminals likely to attack the food industry?

The answer is clearly ‘yes’; and there are at least three obvious channels: hacktivists, cyber-criminal gangs, and nation states. And a fourth, that needs to be mentioned: competitors. “Increased levels of espionage and sabotage from competitors will also heighten as organizations do battle for technological supremacy in this space,” warns Daniel Norman, research analyst with the Information Security Forum (ISF).


There is a growing social movement to use the re-emergence from the COVID lockdown as an opportunity to ‘reboot’ the way society operates. Environmental pollution has dropped rapidly, and nature has recovered from its effects quickly. Environmental activists are calling for governments to invest in green technology as a post-pandemic economic stimulus.

Where this does not happen, and where the old polluting industries revert to their traditional practices, activists are likely to ‘punish’ the worst offenders. This is likely to be two-pronged: environmentalists concerned about increasing pollution, and animal rights activists objecting to the return to mass animal slaughter.

This punishment may come in the form of large-scale DDoS attacks, or even direct attacks against individual plants.

Cyber-criminal gangs

Criminal gangs are driven by two related issues – opportunity and money. The pandemic will have focused attention on the food supply chain, and both issues are apparent. The pandemic will be followed by recession, which could potentially be followed by a deeper depression. Even in the best scenario, there will be many areas of society operating on drastically reduced incomes in the foreseeable future.

The threat is not new. Theft of food has always existed: those who have none are forced to steal from those who have plenty. In the distant past, this was small-scale – effectively petty theft. In the more recent past, criminal gangs have become involved in more large-scale theft from distribution (cargo theft) and warehouses. 

This is continuing: recent data from Transported Asset Protection Association (TAPA) suggests that cargo theft has increased by 114% over the last 12 months. On May 3, 2020, FreightWaves reported, “Trucks carrying food and other essentials have been popular with thieves along Mexico’s highways in recent weeks. Cargo theft of trucks has increased 25% during the coronavirus pandemic period, according to a survey conducted by LoJack Mexico.”

Cybercrime, however, could take this to a new level. Entire shipments of food could be redirected and stolen. Entire food companies can be extorted for large sums of money. IT and OT networks can be compromised by ransomware, and the rapid spoilage of food in production would be an incentive to pay the ransom. With much of the food industry comprising small local businesses, it will often become a question of paying up or going under – and this equation will attract additional attackers.

Nation states

The importance of the food supply chain is not lost on the military. In 1812, when Napoleon invaded Russia, the Russian army withdrew but operated a scorched earth policy to deny food supplies to Napoleon’s army. Without supplies, Napoleon was forced to retreat from Moscow, which arguably and ultimately led to his downfall.

“It is a well-known fact,” comments the ISF’s Norman, “that during times of conflict, the party that can destroy the food supply chain will inevitably win. It is therefore conceivable that cyber-attacks from nation state-backed actors and terrorist groups will begin targeting organizations dependent on new technologies, disrupting global supply chains.”

Cyber brings the opportunity of large-scale adversarial interference in food supplies. In military terms this could be a precursor to kinetic warfare, but the cyber age has introduced a new style of cyberwar. The U.S. experienced it in 2016 with Russian interference in the presidential election. The purpose may not have been to directly influence the outcome of the election, but to demoralize the American population. With a demoralized population, a nation’s effectiveness on the world stage is inevitably weakened.

“One way to weaken your adversary is to cause internal conflict,” added IOActive’s Sheehy. “Well, you can survive about three minutes without air, three days without water, and about three weeks without food. People will riot very quickly if they cannot get food. Even in this relatively civilized COVID lockdown, the stresses on the food supply chain have caused very high tensions among people.”

Continued interruption to the food supply chain would inevitably demoralize the population. In extreme circumstances it would lead to rioting in the streets and food looting. The possibility of such a threat from an adversarial nation should not be ignored.

The security of the food supply chain

The food industry is no different to any other industry – it has undergone rapid evolution into the fourth industrial revolution. IT and OT are being converged, and OT uses the same ICS devices with the same vulnerabilities as other industries. The same priority of continued production over updating systems prevails, and continued use of Windows 98 is still found. But just as older, vulnerable systems continue to be used, the industry is adopting new and not yet battle-tested technology with advanced sensors, robotics, drones and autonomous vehicles.

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“One of the trends we see broadly in the food industry,” comments Sheehy, “is a move towards more automation. Partly this is a response to the pandemic – robots won’t be sent home in any similar or repeated scenario. Labor is more of a business risk than robots. However, moving to more significant automation is going to change the risk profile in a way that a lot of organizations haven’t formerly had to manage – operational technology has not been considered a high-risk priority.”

It’s exacerbated, added Matt Rahman (IOActive’s COO), “by the structure of the industry. About 74% of food manufacturers have less than 20 employees. About 97% have fewer than 500 employees. They don’t have the staff nor expertise to properly manage their cyber security.”

It is also worth noting that the food supply chain is more complex than the supply chains for most industries. Elsewhere, the supply chain primarily comprises third-party suppliers, product or parts delivery, and the manufacturer. With food it is third party suppliers (normally farmers), product delivery, food processing (the manufacturer), and then a further complex distribution to groceries/supermarkets and/or consumer. Each stage of this chain can be threatened.

“Technology adoption has skyrocketed in virtually every segment of our agriculture sector including food production, processing, and distribution,” comments Parham Eftekhari, founder and chairman of the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology (ICIT), “and experts predict this trend to continue with robotics and self-driving freight carriers paving the way for an autonomous future. This creates significant opportunity for disruption to our supply chain and food safety concerns.”

He continued, “Today, we are already hearing stories of processing plants shutting down and the potential of food shortages. What if manufacturing and storage facilities of perishable food products have their cooling systems hacked during a time of a national food shortage? It would only take a handful of high-profile attacks to create panic among citizens that could lead to a rush on grocery stores and threaten an already fragile food supply.”

The food industry supply chain is vulnerable at every stage. “Farmers are using GPS technology and robotics to custom fertilize and plant their land to optimize yield,” said Eftekhari. What if these systems are hacked – without their knowledge – resulting in crops that underperform expectations across the nation.”

Norman added, “5G environments will enable precision agriculture and farming at the individual crop or livestock level but will use poorly secured IoT devices and drones to monitor soil fertilization, nitrogen levels, pest control, water and sunlight requirements. Automated robotic combine harvesters will operate on private 5G networks, with machine learning systems calculating and monitoring optimum conditions across larger and interconnected ecosystems. The danger of attacks on the integrity of information could significantly alter the production process.”

At a local level, this could be a punitive attack by a hacktivist group objecting to use of certain pesticides, or genetically modified crops in general. “The agricultural industry is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the world,” says Norman. “Extreme levels of methane, nitrous oxide output and water usage consistently make them a prime target for activism. With greater dependency on technology, hacktivists will turn their attention to disrupting the technology underpinning the supply chain.”

At a national level, as part of modern geopolitical disruption, the aim could be to reduce yields in complete crops – shortages in wheat, corn and soybean crops would be both economically and socially damaging. 

Distribution, both from farmer to processor and from processor to distributor, has long been subject to cargo theft by criminals – and the cyber element is growing. “Criminals hack into distribution firms,” comments IOActive’s Rahman, “to learn about shipments, create false invoices, bills of lading and manifests to falsify delivery/collection times when they can simply pick up the stolen cargo.”

The food processing plant is the obvious primary target for cyber criminals, especially for extortion. Ransomware is already targeting manufacturing. “Today, we are hearing stories of processing plants shutting down and the potential of food shortages,” said Eftekhari. “What if manufacturing and storage facilities of perishable food products have their cooling systems hacked during a time of a national food shortage? It would only take a handful of high-profile attacks to create panic among citizens that could lead to a rush on grocery stores and threaten an already fragile food supply.”

Here the worst scenario might come from terrorist groups rather than nation-states or criminal gangs. The motivation would be to seek harm rather than sow discord or acquire money. Such groups would be worried about neither attribution nor retribution, but could seek to break into processing plants either to damage equipment or poison supplies. 

Beyond the processing plant, the food supply chain continues to the sales outlets. For now, the threat is physical redirection or old-fashioned cargo theft. This will change in future years as more and more supplies are delivered by autonomous trucks. Autonomous vehicles are proven to be hackable. Experts expect the recent trend of the food industry adopting new technology to continue, warns Eftekhari, “with robotics and self-driving freight carriers paving the way for an autonomous future. This creates significant opportunity for disruption to our supply chain and food safety concerns.”

But the threat already exists with current connected trucks. “The heavy vehicle cabs are exposed to potential cyber-attack,” warns Sheehy, “as well as their refrigerated trailers. The more modern refrigerated trailers often have their own monitoring systems which can be remotely accessible over mobile networks. They are also often attached to the controller area network (CAN bus) of the vehicle, providing a potential attack point to compromise the overall security of the vehicle.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the fragility of the global food chain. This fragility will not be lost on cyber criminals. As the world moves from pandemic lockdown to economic recession, criminals will almost certainly look closely at the food supply chain as a means of making money. The risk is not to any one specific part of the chain nor any one type of criminal – the whole chain is at risk. 

“If an attacker wants to provide some type of disruption to the food supply, one area could be transportation; a second is in food processing; but a third would be in food safety,” says Sheehy. “If the cold storage facility is not kept at the appropriate temperature, products will spoil. Even though different parts of the supply chain may have successfully done the production, the transportation and processing securely, you may still be in a situation where you have a constraint on supply due to a compromise in the integrity of the safety processes.”

RelatedResearchers Analyze Entry Points, Vectors for Manufacturing System Attacks

Related: Huawei and Supply Chain Security – The Great Geopolitical Debate

Related: Firm Analyzes China, Russia-based Supply Chain Risks of eVoting Machines

Related: Intel Compute Lifecycle Assurance to Protect Platform Supply Chains

Related: Supply Chain Attacks Nearly Doubled in 2018: Symantec

Written By

Kevin Townsend is a Senior Contributor at SecurityWeek. He has been writing about high tech issues since before the birth of Microsoft. For the last 15 years he has specialized in information security; and has had many thousands of articles published in dozens of different magazines – from The Times and the Financial Times to current and long-gone computer magazines.

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