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How Farmers Can Evaluate Agtech Startups’ Privacy Terms

April 26, 2016

Farmers may soon see a particular symbol popping up on the websites of their ag software and farm management technologies. The American Farm Bureau Federation has launched a new initiative aimed at awarding certain ag data company with an “Ag Data Transparent” seal if they participate in its Ag Data Transparency Evaluator (ADTE).

The ADTE aims to help guide farmers in determining which ag data service provider is right for their operation.

Created in collaboration with a broad list of farm industry groups, commodity organizers, and agriculture technology providers (ATPs), the Evaluator poses 10 questions to service providers regarding their data practices and terms of use. ADTE questions cover things like whether an ATP will notify the farmer if its agreements change, obtain the farmer’s consent before providing other companies with access to his or her data, and permit the farmer to delete his or her dataset when the contract terminates.

An independent third party administrator reviews the company’s answers and the results are posted on the ADTE website for farmers and other ag professionals to review. Only companies that receive approval are allowed to use the “Ag Data Transparent” seal.

“I believe that the agricultural industry is at a crossroads right now,” Todd Janzen, administrator for the Ag Data Transparency Evaluator, recently told AgFunderNews. “We are at a point where the industry must decide if (a) farmers are going to give up ownership and privacy in their ag data, or (b) if farmers are going to retain ownership and take control of their ag data.”

According to Janzen, the ADTE has three goals. First, it seeks to simplify the contracts that ATPs offer farmers, which can often be clouded with legalese and fine print. It’s also designed to foster trust between farmers and ATPs with an eye toward encouraging farmers to implement agtech.

Transparency is also a primary goal. “So many ATPs market phrases like ‘the farmer owns the data’, but the real proof is in their contracts with farmers, not advertising materials,” says Janzen. “By answering a few key questions about their contracts, we are forcing ATPs to be transparent.”

Each year, the ADTE board of directors, which consists of representatives of farmer-led groups and ATPs, will meet to review the questions and determine what new issues need addressing.

Janzen is not the first to raise concerns regarding the relationship between farm data, farmers, and the companies who want to access and sell services based off it.

On May 5, 2015, a number of industry groups and service providers unveiled their Privacy and Security Principles for Farm Data. The document outlines 13 core principles that the coalition would like to see embodied in agreements governing farm data. It touches on everything from educating farmers, to providing notice, to third-party sales limitations. These data principles serve as the foundation for the ADTE.

There are a few other initiatives on the market comparable to the ADTE like online privacy certifier TRUSTe and the infamous Good Housekeeping seal of approval, but none focusing on ag data specifically. Because the evaluator is a non-profit, Janzen does not foresee any copycats entering the space in the near future.

So far, three companies have gone through the evaluator: MyAgData, Farmobile, and Conservis.

“If a farmer wanted to spend the time and energy to go through all of the fine points of any potential contract, they certainly could,” Conservis product manager Mark Hubbard told AgFunderNews. “But ultimately, what we are talking about here is how do you give the growers an opportunity to quickly evaluate on a level playing field the different pieces of criteria. If individual farmers evaluate it, that doesn’t help the other farmer. You get no scalability.”

Conservis, which provides data aggregation and interpretation support from planting to harvest, has been involved with the ADTE since 2015. Hubbard says that Conservis’ customers ask many different questions about data and that the evaluator provides an objective benchmark. It also helps the company take a hard look at whether its policies and terms are as clear as they can be.

“Tools like the evaluator will begin to force technology companies to use real language and words instead of trying to hide it in massive pages of data policies and privacy info, and to actually explain what their standards are and what they are committing to the grower,” he says.

Grower Information Services Cooperative (GiSC), a grower owned and governed data cooperative, was also part of the ADTE’s development process. The cooperative focuses on advocating for grower data rights, marketing data on behalf of members, and collaborating with other industry members on developing technologies for growers.

“This was a long process,” GiSC co-founder Billy Tiller told AgFunderNews. “I’ve been involved with this for maybe a year and a half. As I watched it go on, I became a huge supporter because I don’t see another or better way to do it at the moment.”

Creating the ADTE involved a lot of discussion and compromise, says Tiller. Although he staunchly believes that the grower owns his or her data, he believes certain concessions must be made.

“You have to give up some things or we will hurt the furtherance of technology,” he said. “One example is when it comes to recalling raw data. It’s like baking a cake. You can’t take your sugar back because you already baked the cake.”

There was also some debate among the participants over the use of the terms ‘ownership’ and ‘control’. While some members believed they are interchangeable, others disagreed. The current iteration of the ADTE treats them as different terms.

“We can use the evaluator to help educate other industry folks about knowing what the growers actually want as opposed to making assumptions,” added Jason Ward, GiSC executive director.

Data privacy and ownership rights are a complicated topic, however. And while the ADTE hammers at some of the current chinks in the industry’s armor, there is still room for it to improve.

“The evaluator’s questions are general in nature, so they cannot touch on every issue that needs to be addressed,” said Janzen. He hopes to revise the questions during the next year to hone in on the issues that farmers care about most. He also notes that while a company may respond to the questions in one way, its sales team may parrot a different tune to prospective and current clients.

There are also concerns regarding the seal itself and the impression that it may give farmers. The seal simply indicates that the company has provided answers to the ADTE’s 10 questions. It is not a reflection of whether those responses are substantively in line with what a grower may or may not want.

“The farmer may see the seal and assume the product is good, not realizing that it just means the company participated in the list of questions,” said Tiller. Neither he nor Ward saw the potential misconception as a reason to scrap the ADTE, however. “I wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. We are going to need to educate growers to see the seal and read the answers to the 10 questions. Then he can see whether the service meets his criteria,” says Tiller.

When it comes to the value of the questions themselves, Hubbard believes that the questions will benefit from refinement over time. “I’m sure there will always be room for improvement. Do we have the right 10 questions? Time will tell,” he said. “Some questions may be confusing or interpreted in different ways, so we will tighten that up.”

Some may say that the ADTE’s seal could create bias towards companies who have participated in the evaluator and those who haven’t. A farmer may see that a company’s product or website lacks the ADTE’s seal and automatically assume the company flunked the test.

“Just because it has a seal, does it mean it’s good for the grower? Once they dig in to the company’s answers, they may find out that they don’t own their data under this company’s terms,” said Ward. “The seal just means they answered the question.”

For Hubbard, any short-term downsides are negligible.

“You could say that a potential downside of the evaluator is that farmers may start to question a company that decides not to answer the questions because it doesn’t want to be totally honest about what it does with data, or because it is doing nefarious things or has ulterior motives,” he said. “But again, this isn’t for-profit or designed to benefit anyone but the growers.”

Whether the ADTE is the answer to tamping down the wild west of ag data rights remains to be seen.

“The important thing is that it is started,” said Hubbard. “It may not be perfect, but policies and companies will evolve and change.”

What do you think of the ADTE, its 10 questions, and/or the potential impact on the market? Send me your thoughts at [email protected].

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