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Agdata: a new frontier for privacy fears?

Agdata services are set to come under scrutiny by regulators, particularly in the US.

Agdata is fast becoming a feature on many farms across the US, as food producers seek to automate data collection and make processing and storing of this data more convenient.

But there are concerns from US regulators that agdata services require more robust protection against possible leakages of customers’ data.

A coalition of agriculture technology providers has been set up to agree on data privacy and security principles regarding user data. Members include agribusiness giants DuPont Pioneer, John Deere and the National Farmers Union.

The Open Ag Data Alliance at Purdue University, Indiana, has been set up to certify agdata companies’ user data policies are in line with the Alliance’s aim – that farmers own all the data they generate using the various services. The Alliance counts agdata company Granular and Monsanto, the agribusiness multi-national, as partners.

Agdata companies are not yet coming across this problem as a customer concern, but as the industry grows, companies are pursuing ambitions of becoming ‘big data’ services, which would mean owning and storing user data.

“The main thing that growers are concerned about right now is efficiency of production,” said Lia Reich, director of communication at agdata drone company, PrecisionHawk. “We recognise the beneficial nature of aggregated aerial data, and hope to provide the opportunity for clients to share their data in the spirit of collaborative learning in the future,” she said.

PrecisionHawk customers have ownership of all data collected and stored through its system, she confirmed.

Investors believe pressure to regulate data storage and security will come from the existing drones regulator in the US, the Federal Aviation Authority, not customers. In addition, concerns over using drone technology to collect data on neighbouring farms are somewhat overestimated, according the Millenium Ventures Technology Partners, a US venture capital firm invested in PrecisionHawk.

“Data security and privacy are key concerns of the Federal Aviation Authority rather than growers,” said Ray Cheng, senior associate at Millenium. “From a technical standpoint the flight duration and range of small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are limited so it is not very intuitive to fly your UAV over a competitor’s farm of hundreds of acres,” he said.

An area which will be a cause for concern is storage and security of aerial imaging data generated by farmers, according to Cheng.

“Satellite imaging on the other hand imposes more data privacy challenges, and is an area we anticipate to see increasing regulatory controls in place as more miniaturised satellite technologies mature in the future,” he said.