Legal Ease: Big Data and Your Privacy

July 25, 2014 09:44 PM
John Dillard
Agriculture is officially entering the era of big data. Prescriptive planting relies on historical weather trends and satellite mapping coupled with soil sampling, yield monitoring and soon whatever a drone can glean from flying over a field. Using these tools, data flows from a farmer’s equipment to a central database, along with terabytes of information from farms all across the country. While this data transfer is necessary to feed the algorithms that will compute an individual farmer’s planting prescription, it also has value that extends well beyond its use for prescriptive planting.

One of the primary concerns many producers have about prescriptive planting programs is the ownership of the data. Most farmers view the information about their farm as personal. Although you might brag or complain about yields in the truck line at the grain elevator, you do not necessarily feel comfortable with a computer jockey who is five states away sharing your yield data. If this data can be sold, many farmers want to know how it will be used. 

On a macro level, this aggregated information could be used to make early bets on the futures market, squeezing profits farmers could otherwise secure through contracts. At the farm level, a neighbor could use your yield data to bid against you on leased ground, driving up your production costs.

Big data meets big ag. Most of the prescriptive planting programs are being operated by large input suppliers, such as DuPont, John Deere, Monsanto and Winfield. These companies have the resources to invest in prescriptive planting technology and bring it to scale. They also recognize the value this technology brings to their business. It will allow them to sell more products and provide more value to customers, creating a sizeable revenue stream. 

Although these businesses have a substantial history of working in the agriculture industry, they have not built this new prescriptive planting technology from the ground up. Instead, they have acquired high-tech startup companies, many of them with roots in Silicon Valley, where selling personal data to third parties is common.

Farmers have begun voicing their concerns that privacy protections need to be built into prescriptive planting programs. For instance, American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) has issued a statement declaring that it believes proprietary data collected from farmers should remain the property of the farmers. Furthermore, AFBF believes farmers should have the right to share their data with whomever they choose and they should be notified and compensated for any third-party sales of their data. The involved companies have acknowledged the concerns and have vowed to work with farmers to educate them on how their data will be stored and used.

Protect yourself. If you are thinking about trying out prescriptive planting and are concerned about your proprietary data, read the contract in its entirety and pay particular attention to its data privacy policy. The contract will dictate what your prescriptive planting provider can and cannot do with the data it collects from your farm operation.

When you read the contract, here are a few questions you’ll want to ask:
  • What data will be collected? While the prescriptive planting company might only need to know yield monitor data for the purposes of developing a planting program, it might collect other information that might be useful to third parties. 
  • How will the company use the information? The contract will control whether the information can be sold to third parties. Are there any restrictions on which entities this data can be sold to?
  • What ownership do you have in the data? The contract will dictate if you retain any control over your data. This will determine whether you can share this information with another prescriptive planting provider or a prospective land buyer.  

After meticulously reviewing the contract, if you have concerns or questions about the terms of the contract, you should discuss them with your attorney. 

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