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Data Disclosure: Do The Risks Outweigh The Benefits?

Data Disclosure: Do The Risks Outweigh The Benefits?

While there are concerns over the risks of data disclosure, ag law professor advises to not let fear overwhelm opportunity.

Whether it's a breach of customer data or a celebrity photo hack, issues of data security have made headlines numerous times in the last year. So, with harvest in full swing, it's easy to why some farmers are concerned over data disclosure. However, when it comes to yield data, Dr. Shannon Ferrell, agricultural law professor at Oklahoma State University, says some of this fear may not be well-founded.

"A lot of farmers are saying I just don't want anyone knowing what I'm doing," Ferrell says. "I can't do anything with data on your farm, because I don't own your farm. It would help you make better decisions on your farm, but that information doesn't help me make decisions on my farm. Really, the question is, 'Do the real risks of data disclosure outweigh the benefits of collecting and sharing the data?'"

Dealing with data disclosure
This isn't to say data disclosure isn't a legitimate concern. For example, some landowners are worried about data being disclosed to a state or federal agency and used as a basis for enforcement against them. The biggest risk, according to Ferrell, is in financial data – personally identifiable information which could be used to steal someone's identity.

So, when sharing data with a service provider like a seed dealer, equipment dealer, or crop consultant what can producers do to protect their data from being disclosed to a third party? Currently, there is no statutory framework relating specifically to raw data. In terms of intellectual property rights, the closest fit is trade secret – it has value in the fact that not everyone knows it.

So, in the absence of an existing agreement regarding data privacy between producer and service provider or when supplemental protection is needed, Ferrell recommends a non-disclosure agreement to define what can be done with the data and what must be done to keep it secret.

Don't let fear overwhelm opportunity
Sharing this data is mutually advantageous for service provider and producer, and Ferrell says it's important to not to let fear overwhelm this opportunity. For example, an agreement with a service provider might involve sharing soil maps and GIS information in exchange for near-real-time prescriptions via telecommunication connection.

There's also an advantage to sharing data on the aggregate level, giving growers a chance to see where they stand and benchmark themselves. "The analytical power of the data only grows with the size of the data set. The more data you can gather, the better," Ferrell says. "When you're trying to do things like determine the effects of climate change on productivity and which varieties work better in these climates, the more information you have, the better decisions you can make."

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