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How safe is your dairy data?

Shane St Cyr for Progressive Dairyman Published on 07 February 2017
Dairy data flash drive bugs

In my role, I have the opportunity to work with a wide assortment of dairy producers, utilizing varying degrees of technology on their operations.

Whether herds use the most technologically advanced robots or the most basic software programs, I often find myself in the dairy office analyzing herd information on the computer.

During these office visits, I’m sometimes asked to help problem-solve computer issues the producer might be experiencing. Occasionally, I discover malware or other computer viruses. When that is the case, the question that naturally follows is: “How did it get there?”

One misconception seems to be that if a computer is not connected to the internet it is safe from viruses. While the internet is certainly one way computers become infected, there is another lurking danger that seems more hazardous to dairy office computers: USB drives.

These portable data storage devices, also known as jump drives, memory sticks, flash drives, etc., are the mosquitoes of the technology world. They have the potential to pick up infections when plugged in to an infected computer, and they can spread those infections almost instantaneously as they’re plugged in to other devices.

Given the low level of awareness of this danger, and the high degree of trust producers have with those they do business with, the potential to spread computer viruses to your neighbor is unknowingly high.

Many people might access a dairy’s computer on a given week to collect information, including animal health representatives, nutritionists and breeders, to name a few. Let me illustrate how this can have a widespread impact.

My friend Tom is a sales rep who calls on dairies. Each day, Tom visits four accounts. On these visits, he always collects a back-up of herd records to analyze performance of his product, look for areas of improvement for the producer and identify any early signs of trouble.

His customers find all this data valuable, which is one of the reasons they give Tom access to the data on their computer.

Tom’s first visit on Monday is Bob. However, when Tom stops by, Bob is not around. Tom learns from the herdsman that Bob had to run to town, so he heads in to the office and plugs in his USB drive to collect the herd data for the month and goes on his way to his next account.

Earlier that morning, while Bob was on the computer, a pop-up box opened stating “Your PC is infected; click here for a free virus scan.” Wanting to protect his computer, Bob ran the free virus scan, and the issue was resolved. Or so he thought.

Instead of scanning for viruses, the pop-box had actually installed malware to run in the background of Bob’s computer, slowly destroying his files. Unfortunately, Bob wouldn’t realize this until later in the week, when his computer programs stopped functioning properly.

Bob also didn’t know how his computer got infected – or that Tom had visited and taken a back-up, so he didn’t think to alert him to the virus infection.

That’s unfortunate for Tom because when he had plugged his USB drive into Bob’s computer on Monday, it picked up the same malware that the “virus scan” had installed. Since Tom used the same USB drive to collect data at 20 other dairies, he unknowingly infected every customer’s computer with that malware.

If you rely on your computer and your herd software program to help organize your daily activities, like pregnancy checks and cull lists, then imagine how a computer crash would impact your operation.

Now imagine that all of the files on your computer were lost permanently; it could be devastating to the management of your operation, especially for records that must be kept for a specific period of time. For example, the new Veterinary Feed Directive ruling requires records be kept for two years.

To keep your computer system, and the valuable information on it, safe from harmful viruses, be cautious when it comes to USB drives. Be leery of any USB drives you receive in the mail. Only plug them in to your computer if they are from a trusted source.

If you have any devices around the office that might be questionable, consider replacing them with new ones. Label new USB devices to your farm computer. If someone wants to plug in to your system, you can let them use your USB device or ask them to bring a new one and label it only for use on your computer.

By being aware of the dangers of these devices, and helping educate those that might not be aware, we can help limit the spread of computer viruses throughout our industry, via shared data.  end mark

ILLUSTRATION: Illustrations by Corey Lewis.

Shane St Cyr is a dairy technology specialist at Cargill. Email Shane St Cyr.

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