Friday, December 13, 2013

The Spy Who Came in from the Corn

Update October 2016: Seed Theft Case Ends in Prison Time
A Chinese businessman admitted guilt in a plot to steal trade secrets from U.S. agriculture, and he will spend three years in prison.


Update April 2016: Security, Spies, and Agriculture
After an agriculture espionage legal case against a Chinese national, U.S. officials are warning of a growing economic and national security threat to America's farm sector. They urge agriculture executives and security officers to increase their vigilance and report any suspicious activity. As this video shows, that vigilance includes some farmers.
 
March 2016--Agribusiness Worries about the Espionage Game
Ag espionage seems more threatening than ever as some companies are trying to protect their proprietary information by adding staff and more sophisticated software. Some firms have hired former FBI officials to help.

2015 Updates: According to this article, the U.S. Department of Justice maintains that China is quietly permitting and even encouraging companies to steal American agricultural secrets right out of the ground. This writer gives his version of the history of these “corn wars” and the present state of the espionage and “food diplomacy.”

2014 Updates:  As this article and podcast report, the U.S. Government indicted Chinese government hackers on charges of stealing trade secrets from Iowa cornfields.
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James Bond Meets Ma and Pa Kettle: Classic Ag Espionage

I suppose corporate espionage is a big deal, but I want to point out that spying was a common activity back in my boyhood farming days. It was not so much James Bondish—more Ma and Pa Kettleish. Anytime a farmer drove anywhere, he did what Dad calls a “windshield survey” to see what the neighbors were planting and which production techniques they were implementing.

Rural folks also used party line telephones, church socials, and bull sessions at the grain elevators to mine for data. They were after encrypted information about weed control, erosion prevention, and planting techniques.

If a neighbor was the first to plant in the cold of spring, then he was either an idiot or a genius depending on the subsequent weather patterns. If his fields were clean and pristine, then you wanted to snoop about which herbicides were working or what crew of teens he was hiring to “walk and weed.”

And just like the breaking story of today, seeds were the main espionage target. Farmers wanted to get the best hybrids in those pre-GMO days, and they wanted to outshine the neighbors. If you couldn’t brag about your yields-per-acre at the coffee shop in town, then either you weren’t much of a farm operator, or you weren't much good at “bending the truth.”

On a personal level, I’m not worried about this espionage. My brother runs our family farm, and I’ll just let him know that if he sees any cloak-and-dagger-looking folks snooping around in his fields, he should hand them a hoe and corn knife. The herbicide-resistant weeds are getting more prevalent—maybe they could clean the field while they’re spying. How do you say “pigweed” and “cockleburs” in Chinese?

by dan gogerty (graphic at blogs.njit.edu)

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