News Groups Challenge USDA Shut Down of Early Commodity Info – DTN

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Bloomberg News, Dow Jones/The Wall Street Journal, the National Press Club, the National Press Foundation and DTN/The Progressive Farmer have sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue challenging USDA’s decision last month to abolish the “lockup” during which news organizations were granted access to USDA supply-and-demand information 90 minutes before its release.  

USDA officials said they were eliminating the lockup due to complaints that media outlets have been using advanced technology to give investors access to sensitive agricultural data before it’s available to the general public.

The new procedure begins for Friday’s Crop Production and monthly World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates reports. Those reports will be posted on USDA’s website at 11 a.m. Central Daylight Time. USDA stated this will provide everyone equal access to crop reports.

Cargill, a major trader, said it supports releasing the information to news organizations at the same time as the general public because it would “level the playing field.”

In the letter dated Aug. 1, the news organizations said they are “committed to First Amendment advocacy and government transparency. We believe the new proposal is ill-advised, contrary to the law both as to substance and process, certain to reduce transparency and accuracy of critical data and sure to substantially increase cybersecurity risks.”

The news organizations highlighted a few of the challenges to people in the grain trade created by the new procedures that prevent early access by journalists to the reports.

“Under the new regime, reporters will race at noon to produce as quickly as possible the stories that were previously produced in 90 minutes. Access to statistical interpretation tools that automate, validate, and fact-check the new data to ensure overall accuracy will be reduced. Inaccuracies will soar, comprehensiveness will suffer, and those members of the public who actually read the news will be vastly disadvantaged compared to algorithmic traders and major international agricultural conglomerates. What possible interest does this serve?”

The news organizations expressed particular concern about cybersecurity, noting USDA is proposing to use a common uplink from USDA to the internet. 

“Fundamentally, this represents a single-point-of-failure as an attacker anywhere in the world can cause traffic floods on the USDA network that would prevent any data from entering or exiting for the duration of the attack. This type of attack (referred to as a ‘distributed denial-of-service’ or ‘DDoS’ attack) happens routinely and is typically executed from thousands of infected machines spread across the world, thus making it a long and labor-intensive process to mitigate the attack and return normal service to the affected network.”

The news organizations also said they believe the new procedures may increase market volatility and threaten national economic security. They also said USDA’s action violates the Administrative Procedures Act because the affected groups did not have an opportunity to comment before USDA took action.

“We urge the USDA to engage with journalists and the broader public to attempt to arrive at an outcome that protects individual and institutional investors, the markets, and transparency,” the letter concluded.

In response to a request for comment on the letter, the USDA Office of Communications on Friday sent a copy of the July 10 news release on the announcement that the lockup would be abolished.

News organizations’ letter to USDA: http://www.dtn.com/…

USDA Statement on Lockup Access: https://www.nass.usda.gov/…

2007 USDA report on safeguarding agricultural statistics from 1905-2005: https://goo.gl/…

Jerry Hagstrom can be reached at jhagstrom@njdc.com

Follow him on Twitter @hagstromreport

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