The 50,000 ships sailing the sea at any one time have joined an ever-expanding list of objects that can be hacked. Cybersecurity experts recently displayed how easy it was to break into a ship’s navigational equipment. This comes only a few years after researchers showed that they could fool the GPS of a super-yacht into altering course. Once upon a time objects such as cars, toasters and tugboats only did what they were originally designed to do. Today the problem is that they all also talk to the internet.
The story so far
Stories about maritime cybersecurity are only going to proliferate. The maritime industry has been slow to realise that ships, just like everything else, are now part of cyberspace. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the UN body charged with regulating maritime space, has been late and somewhat slow in considering appropriate regulation when it comes to cybersecurity.
In 2014, the IMO consulted their membership on what maritime cybersecurity guidelines should look like. Two years later they issued their interim cybersecurity risk management guidelines, which are broad and not particularly maritime specific. And now, unsurprisingly, ships are being hacked.
Complexity of the maritime industry
There are several core issues that make cybersecurity for the maritime industry particularly challenging to address.
First, there are many different classes of vessel, all of which operate in very different environments. These vessels tend to have different computer systems built into them. Significantly, many of these systems are built to last over 30 years. In other words, many ships run outdated and unsupported operating systems, which are often the ones most prone to cyber-attacks.
Second, the users of these maritime computer systems are constantly in flux. Ship crews are highly dynamic, often changing at short notice. As a result, crew members are often using systems they are unfamiliar with, increasing the potential for cybersecurity incidents relating to human error. Further, the maintenance of onboard systems, including navigational ones, is often contracted to a variety of third parties. It is perfectly possible that a ship’s crew have little understanding of how onboard systems interact with each other.
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Keith Martin and Rory Hopcraft are writers for theconversation.com.