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Report shows NASS weakness in security measures

USDA Inspector General report shows weaknesses in the department's security measures to safeguard the integrity of the crop reports that can impact commodity markets.

While there are any number of companies that provide crop reports for well-heeled investors, the reports produced by the National Agricultural Statistics Service are an important public source of market information available to everyone.

Unscrupulous traders would be able to manipulate the market if they were able to get a look at crop information even minutes before its public release. To maintain the integrity of the reports, NASS takes precautions to keep information under wraps until their specified release date.

Capital Press reporter Mateusz Perkowski outlined those precautions in a story he wrote last May:

• To prevent valuable data from being leaked ahead of release, USDA routinely subjects certain employees to a practice known as “lockup” on two floors of its Washington headquarters.

• An armed guard prevents unauthorized visitors from entering the area.

• Workers in the area use a segregated computer system that cannot communicate with outside networks during the lockup period.

• Phone lines to the outside are also cut off, while incoming and outgoing cell phone signals are blocked.

“Nothing comes out of there until a report is actually issued,” said Sue King, public affairs section head for NASS. “We even pull down the window shades and lead seal them.”

Security sounded pretty tight. But an audit by USDA’s Office of Inspector General suggests something less.

• Auditors twice entered the lockup area carrying cellphones in their pockets with “minimal effort” and sent text messages from the facility. The text messages went unnoticed.

• Visitors were allowed inside the secure area without signing in as required by procedure.

• Technology used to detect cellular signals can’t accurately identify the source or location of signals. Signals emanating from unsecured floors above and below the secured area are detected, leading

• A reporter was observed using an iPad in the facility, even though devices with cellular capabilities are prohibited.

• Auditors were admitted to the facility even though their security badges had expired. Auditors also found that the NASS keycard data base had not been updated to remove former employees.

The USDA says it’s acting on the Inspector General’s findings to tighten security. We hope so, though this isn’t the first time deficiencies have been found.

Although though the most savvy of investors don’t rely on the reports, the data is still used by many farmers to make planting decisions and time their own market moves. They need to be confident that the information has not been compromised and used to manipulate commodity markets.



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