You may not think WikiLeaks and the agriculture industry have anything in common, but you’d be sorely mistaken. The ag industry is slowly but surely entering the digital age. More and more transactions and information are being exchanged on the internet than ever before. As a result, more data and information are available to be unearthed, discovered or hacked.

WikiLeaks’ proponents instigated a slew of online attacks against Visa, Mastercard, Paypal and other commercial sites, taking the sites down for periods of time, costing these companies millions of dollars. The attack was dubbed “Operation Payback,” which started as retaliation to distributed denial of service (DDoS) for refusing to work with WikiLeaks for financials and donations. The initial reaction by WikiLeaks’ proponents snowballed into a wave of attacks on major pro-copyright and anti-piracy organizations, law firms, individuals and the financial Web sites who had frozen transactions with WikiLeaks.

An article in Fast Company magazine a few weeks ago, pointed out that this type of attack is new in the cyber world. “This was the first time attacks of this scale were made for political—rather than criminal—reasons,” according to the article. “And along with other types of persistent hacks, they’re probably not going to go away, either. Protestors have found a new tool, and they're likely to use it to express their displeasure about other issues in the future.”

The Fast Company article terms the action as “hacktivism.” Agriculture is likely to see this type of attack sooner rather than later. The article highlighted several key points about the rise in hacktivism.

1. Social networks are turbo-charging hactivism
2. Online sites are increasingly attractive targets
3. Hacktivists are getting smarter
4. Companies need not bother with public relations
5. If you’re a small company, rely on your Internet Service Provider for their security protocols
6. If you’re a large company, Operation Payback was a wake-up call.

Activism against the agriculture industry is not new. Ag companies have been battling groups like the Humane Society of the United States, Greenpeace, the locavore movement and activist fundamental organic groups for many years. Now, however, the battle line is shifting, and agriculture companies need to be prepared for more cyberspace problems.

The WikiLeaks attacks represent a higher level of attack than previously seen in the cyber world. Now that the proverbial cat is out of the bag, activists in the agriculture sector are likely to stand up and take notice and possibly implement these types of attacks. The activist groups already have proved they are tech-savvy and capable of using any means necessary in swaying public opinion and protesting, even in cyberspace.

Large agricultural companies have initiated new levels of security, but more will be needed. Already many company representatives can only communicate via approved e-mail channels, never by using hotel or any public internet services.

Agriculture companies can no longer afford to assume their Web sites and networks are safe and immune from cyber attack. Upgrading security and double checking with IT departments to assess your company’s security is key for 2011. Discussing cyber security and strategies for handling these types of scenarios would go a long way in protecting your company. Just as companies would upgrade their site security from possible activist attack, it is now time to protect your chunk of the cyber world as well.

By Colleen Scherer, managing editor, AgProfessional