May 30, 2014, 3:51 PM

Monsanto investigates “unauthorized access” to network of online customer data

The provider of Internet-based agriculture management tools as well as other equipment and plant seeds says a network data breach at its Precision Planting unit may have exposed the personal information of more than 1,000 farmers.

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To help farmers improve the yield of their crops, Monsanto Co.’s Precision Planting unit offers a wide range of tools, including Internet-hosted software, that helps them get maximum crop yield per acre by monitoring such things as seed spacing, soil depth and root development.

This week, however, Monsanto announced that a data network for storing information on individual farm owners, their employees and business contractors was accessed by an unauthorized “outside party.” It said it discovered the breach March 27.

St. Louis-based Monsanto said yesterday that the breached network contained information on close to 1,300 farm customers, though it noted that the breach had been contained since it was discovered March 27. The data included customer names, addresses, tax identification numbers and customer financial account numbers. Precision Planting’s web site, PrecisionPlanting.com, lets farmers create accounts for purchasing such products as FieldView Plus, which is an Internet or cloud-based application for sharing information with Monsanto on crops and agricultural practices in an effort to boost crop yields.

“We believe this unauthorized access was not an attempt to steal customer information,” the general counsel for Precision Planting, Rueben Shelton, said in a letter to the office of the Maryland state attorney general. “However, it is possible that files containing personal information may have been accessed and therefore we are making this notification.”

He added that Monsanto was seeking assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and providing individuals affected by the breach a free year of services related to credit monitoring and identity theft protection.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, which advocates on behalf of farmers, has identified data privacy and security concerns posed by “big data” systems used by Monsanto and other agricultural products companies as one of the priority issues it’s raising before the current session of Congress. In a position paper on its web site, the federation says that, while data collected on crop plantings and production across thousands of farms can be quite helpful to farmers, such information could cause major problems for farmers if it gets into the wrong hands. For example, it says commodity traders might try to use such data to set unrealistic prices in commodity futures markets, which let investors buy and sell commodities like corn and soybeans based on expected future prices.

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