Wyoming Farmers Worry Starlink-Connected Tractors Could Hack Their Data

Although the partnership between John Deere and SpaceX to provide satellite terminals for current and future agricultural equipment may sound good on the surface, Wyoming farmers say it is unclear if their data and privacy would be protected. 

Tracie Sullivan

February 09, 20244 min read

Wyoming farmers say they're skeptical of a new partnership with Elon Musk's SpaceX corp. and Starlink to connect internet to John Deere tractors.
Wyoming farmers say they're skeptical of a new partnership with Elon Musk's SpaceX corp. and Starlink to connect internet to John Deere tractors. (Getty Images)

Farmers rely heavily on their tools and equipment. But as internet technology in that equipment advances, many farmers are voicing concerns about whether others will be able to access their hard-gotten data.

These concerns amplified as John Deere unveiled a partnership with SpaceX last month to provide satellite terminals tailored for both current and upcoming agricultural equipment.

Several farmers who discussed the new partnership with Cowboy State Daily agreed that boosting internet connectivity in farm equipment could help the industry. But they were skeptical about whether their data and privacy would be protected. 

“I think this is exciting and could be a great partnership,” said Chad Franke, a farmer in Lander and president of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. “But we also need to make sure our data is protected.” 

John Deere has said it is going to transform the farming experience by equipping farm machines to use Starlink satellites.

In action, the satellite terminal has the potential to connect a farmer to his equipment in the field, alerting him to issues via his smartphone. The farmer could then remotely access the diagnostics to identify issues like a clogged nozzle and make immediate repairs.

Will Tractors Be Hackable?

While the new technology appears promising, consumers have raised several concerns pertaining to data privacy. 

“We need to make sure this is a tool that is working for us, not against us,” said Dan Waldvogle, director of Rocky Mountain Farmers Union.

Farming operations are increasingly reliant on precision agriculture technologies, making access to reliable internet crucial for farmers to optimize productivity and efficiency, Franke said.

The new Starlink terminals are expected to enable farmers to achieve this by enhancing their connectivity. 

“In rural areas you don’t always get great internet service, especially in Wyoming where you’re 300 feet away from your house and you have no service,” he said. “And there are times where farmers need to connect and we can’t and that can really affect our bottom line. So if this partnership allows farmers to be able to connect easier it will help us.”

Farmers worry however, that their proprietary agricultural data and personal information could be compromised. 

To nurture thriving farms and foster sustainability, farmers rely on key insights like weather forecasts, crop health data, and soil moisture levels. This information helps them make informed decisions that impact a farm's overall production.

Years Of Tracking Soil, Sky

Proprietary agricultural data often represents years of hard work, experimentation, and investment. Therefore, any breach of this information could have significant consequences on the business.

“The data that farmers collect needs to be protected. You don’t want anyone to be able to hack it or sell it on the black market,” said Todd Rornstrom, Laramie County farmer and Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation president. 

The newly-formed partnership between SpaceX and John Deere is also raising questions about who owns and controls the data.

Smart technology on farming equipment generates extensive data. However, it's often unclear who owns it — whether it belongs to the farmer, the equipment manufacturer, or the technology provider.

“The farming industry is very data driven. We track everything from how much fertilizer we use, our harvest data and even the types of seeds we use. And we believe we own that data. So we need to make sure that any agreement we enter into with SpaceX and John Deere that we still own it,” Franke said.

Farmers interviewed by Cowboy State Daily voiced concerns about data ownership, noting that manufacturers often lack clarity regarding the use, sharing, or monetization of collected information.

Waldvogle emphasized the need for clear and transparent policies is important to protect farmers and all involved parties as vast amounts of sensitive agricultural data are generated and shared.

“We don’t want any of our protected data being sold or shared without our permission,” Waldvogle said. 

Having these clear guidelines will not only safeguard proprietary information, he added, but also foster trust and collaboration. 

The new satellite service is expected to roll out to farmers in the United States and Brazil in the second half of 2024. Farmers will not have the details on the policies and agreements until that time. 

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Tracie Sullivan