Under the Agridome

Data, Data, Data: Facebook, Privacy Breaches and Big Ag

Thursday, April 19th, 2018

It is such a different world in 2018 versus earlier times. Data used to be a thing we measured and collected in beakers and on pieces of paper. Of course computer technology really changed all that. With the advance of computer technology over the last 40 years, manipulating data became much more possible. Even your loyal scribe in 1989 put a pile of data inside a now old computer and crunched out a bunch of correlations that made oh so much sense. However, back in those days when Brian Mulroney was Prime Minister, I could never imagine a day where a company called Facebook collected millions of bits of personal data from people in an insatiable thrust to sell online ads. At the time, that would be a panacea.

Seeing Mark Zuckerberg testify before the American Congress about the data breach at Facebook with Cambridge Analytica was fascinating stuff to me. I’m an old guy now, but at one time I was a young guy into computers at a time when hardly anybody else was. Obviously, Mark Zuckerberg the creator of Facebook caught the right set of waves, something I probably couldn’t have even imagined. Here he was before Congress defending Facebook over privacy concerns and the data breach by a company, which helped both the Trump campaign and the campaign of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

I found the Zuckerberg performance to be commanding, handling questions with candor and even humility. Many of the legislators had no idea what they were talking about. Others did. Clearly though, from my perspective it was a big story because in today’s society and economy the use of personal data for corporate gain is comprehensive. I find it all very troubling.

Of course, I relate it over to the agricultural arena. I say that because as we all know “big data” has become a thing in our farming landscape. In 2018 tractors talk to planters and sprayers and they can even talk to combines, in fact they talk to almost anybody. Yield monitors feed data in real time to the cloud. There is data flowing everywhere!

I thought that I was immune from much of this because I don’t have a yield monitor in my combine. I can afford one, but getting payback from it seems to be a stretch, as it would cost me about $8000 or $9000 to install. There is just too much 1980s in me to make that investment. I told this to my respected agronomist friend who told me that none of that increasingly matters. He told me drones at harvest time could take pictures that will give those fancy yield maps with a 90% yield correlation. I recoiled. That would work for me. Needless to say, with modern technology it will be happening whether I know about it or not.

In other words, data is harvested from our fields in a number of different ways, some we know of and some we do not know of. I consider that a big problem. I do not believe in the sinister conspiracy theories that “big Ag” will use this data to make evil decisions against farmers. My issue is farmers need to be paid for this data and paid well. Unfortunately, it’s not working that way, in fact, it’s working somewhat the opposite and regrettably many farmers are good with that.

It may be a generational thing. For instance, some, mostly younger people than me are very cavalier on how easily they give away personal data. In the age of Facebook, Twitter, Snapshot, Amazon and Uber giving away your personal information is almost akin to breathing. All of those companies have information about you and they give advertisers access to it. You can bet that “Big Ag” does the same, of course at a price, which is very high. At the end of the day, it’s always about the agricultural economics. The data is big money

Privacy concerns are big data’s Achilles’ heel. I say that because internet use has become ubiquitous, where at one time it was not. Many of us can surely remember when we signed up for the Internet. It was amazing. Over time, it has become much more comprehensive where we depend so much on the Internet. However, if there are breaches of privacy, whether that be through a social media company like Facebook or a bank or an agricultural company, that’s a big problem. It might spur a decrease in Internet use by maybe 10%-15% if those privacy concerns aren’t addressed properly. Some people might just check out, depending on how private the new world of big data becomes.

Its interesting stuff for sure. While in Bangladesh in January 2018, I visited with a computer science student who was planning to do his PhD on something called “data mining”. Hmmm, man oh man. Maybe in his data mining he’ll be able to measure my corn yield in real time on the other side of the world. I dunno, but I do know Mark Zuckerberg said during the Congressional hearing that Facebook follows you around even when you are logged off.

I rest my case. Do you feel better now? The least we can do as farmers is get paid for our data. Big Ag has the money. Don’t let them tell you anything else.