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We’ve become so used to it that we often don’t even notice it anymore. Headlines such as “Largest meat processor in the world hit by major cyber attack“, “The municipality of Hof van Twente has been digitally held hostage.

Until the moment you do start noticing it because you are affected by it yourself … “Maastricht University suffers ransomware attack“. At that moment, in the middle of the Christmas vacations, I suddenly could no longer access the university library files. That was not such a major disaster for me as II had no papers to finish or exams to study for.

One thing that is clear with events like these is how dependent we all are on this digital technology and how everything is ‘connected’. I’m not a student at Maastricht University, but access to the library of ‘my’ university runs through the Maastricht digital library.

More and more dependent

We are all becoming more and more dependent on digital technology. As a consumer for one thing. Take, for example, the smartphone that all of us almost all have and use to do all sorts of things. Although I’m not a digital native, I do use that thing a whole lot! Just to check what the weather forecast is, what time the supermarket opens and to adjust the temperature of my heating. We tend not to realize anymore how much we are used to having this kind of info at our fingertips. And our dependence on it is only set to increase.

Businesses are also increasingly dependent on digital technology. There are a growing number of things that are only possible online. Also, as a company, you would ideally like to be able to access all your data from a central location. This dependence is accompanied by a rising level of vulnerability and inconvenience. The term (cyber)security is frequently cited in this context.

By the way, it is important to realize that security is not only about the risks posed by hackers. For instance, even the “simple” damaging of a fiber optic network during excavation work can have major consequences. It can be even simpler than that. Ever had a boarding pass or concert ticket on you only in a digital format on a phone whose battery was (almost) dead?

Robots and drones in greenhouse horticulture

But back to business. In the digitalization vision for greenhouse horticulture we wrote: “Digitalization has also been visible in horticulture for a long time. For decades, the greenhouse climate has been controlled by computers, auction papers are electronic, and greenhouses have sensors for monitoring temperature or humidity levels, for example. And that is just the beginning. Robots, drones, AI, big data, blockchain. New techniques have been cautiously making their way into the sector in recent years. There are various reasons why they are not yet commonplace, but there is no doubt that they will break through in the near future.

Not only in horticulture, but also in many other sectors, we have a variety of data sources. By linking them intelligently, we can save on energy or labo costs, make smarter plans or predict failures even before they occur. To do this, we need to connect all these different ‘data sources’ with each other. Only then can we train smart models or generate knowledge that we would have been unable to achieve without combining all these data.

How nice it is would be if you could predict on a section of a Dutch NS railroad track that, with a temperature of 3 degrees, wind force 4 and a humidity of 34 percent, it is highly likely that a whole bunch of autumn leaves will fall from the trees onto the track causing a serious delay on the line. Pretty handy to know, right?

You will need to link systems to make this possible. The weather forecast, the database with the type of trees along that section of track, perhaps camera images to see how many leaves are still on the tree in the first place, and then the NS timetable.

But that’s where we come to the risks. Many systems in the industry were developed to function as stand-alone systems. Way before it was normal to connect everything to the Internet. What if you now extract the data from that system using a system that is connected to the Internet? The original developer may have built a good functioning and secure system according to the specifications required at the time. It was never taken into account that others than the users on site would have access. After all, the system was in a locked room and could only be accessed with a key.

What if you are a company that works incredibly hard on digital security of your processes and systems and no one can get into them (easily)? Still, there will often be a link to other systems. A company that develops products and is very wary of IP and therefore takes good care of its security. E.g., the people are well trained, there are regular penetration tests on the software and there are clear divisions in who has authorization and access to the systems.. The company is ‘secured neatly under a (digital) lock’.

Until the logistics partner needs to access the system. For loading trucks, it is important to know in advance how many packages need to be transported. When a link is then made between the IT systems of both companies … and this partner does not have the security and training of their people up to scratch …

In practice, it is unfortunately increasingly more common for a company that is serious about digital security – and where it is difficult to get in just like that – to get hacked through linked partner systems. It’s not for nothing that we refer to the weakest link in a chain. It is precisely for this reason that more and more companies are working with their chain partners on digital security.

A good example of this was the article in the Dutch national newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad (FD) on May 18, entitled: “ASML tutors its suppliers on how to ward off hackers.” Where many partners have hardly any resources for preventing cyber incidents, ASML has hundreds of specialists working on this and also shares this knowledge with its chain partners. As the article indicates, its not obliged to do that, but it’s defintely not without obligation in this case!

Initiatives are springing up here and there to work together on a shoring up safety on the digital chain. Not only because companies are so eager to help each other out, but also in their own interests to ensure a safer chain.

And while we are on the subject of weak links and chains, people are often deemed the weakest link. As far as I am concerned, this is certainly not always the case and people can actually form the strongest link. However, this calls for attention, training and the willingness to work together! In a next column, I will focus on people and the importance of security by design in (digital) innovation.

About this column:

In a weekly column, alternately written by Bert Overlack, Eveline van Zeeland, Eugene Franken, Helen Kardan, Katleen Gabriels, Carina Weijma, Bernd Maier-Leppla and Colinda de Beer, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally supplemented by guest bloggers, are all working on solutions in their own way on the problems of our time. So that tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous articles.