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Crew become important component in Cyber Security

Posted in Cyber Security, Seafarers

With vessels now more likely to have access to the internet on board, it is important to understand how this might affect vessel owners and how crews are now an important part of the process to protect their vessel against the growing threat of cyber security attacks.

It is no secret that in 2017, Maersk were a victim of a cybersecurity attack that originated from Russia. It wasn’t a target attack, Maersk were collateral damage, but it is now throwing up questions as to how to protect vessels out at sea. Back in 2017, the vessels were not affected during the cyber-attack due to the fact that hardly anyone of them had internet, and none of them had sophisticated enough internet to be part of an attack. Nowadays, more systems are digitized and there are more reports needed, which need to be sent immediately back to the owners or ports, so the internet is used more often.

There is also the matter that there is an increase of crews who want to keep in touch with family, friends and the outside world, and they are not thinking of how their actions can mean they are open to an attack. Having the internet more freely available on ships can encourage hackers to take control of vessels and potentially cause damage not only to the vessel but to those on board as well.

It is why more research and guidance are at the forefront of people’s minds, especially those at IMO and for Marie Haugli Larsen, a PhD candidate at the Department of Ocean Operations and Civil Engineering at NTNU in Ålesund. She is studying the human effect on cybersecurity. She is wanting to figure out how seafarers can protect themselves and the vessel from cyber-attacks. Larsen is uniquely able to work on this as she used to be a deck officer and has experience of being on board. She uses her experiences to help crew members understand that just because it doesn’t look like a threat, doesn’t mean it should be plugged into the system and to verify any calls regarding software updates.

After the Maritime Safety Committee met in 2017, shortly after the attack, they adopted Resolution MSC.428(98). - Maritime Cyber Risk Management in Safety Management Systems. This wants to encourage administrations to address cyber risks in existing safety management systems. These had to be implemented by January 2021.

It is clear that cyber-attacks on the maritime industry are due to happen and it’s a matter of time as to when they will happen. Recent research has found that there were 46 cyber-attacks within the shipping industry between 2010 and 2020, and these are increasing. It is time that crews as well as vessel operators take the threats seriously.

So how can they do that? How can crew members make sure they are taking the cyber threats more seriously? Well, for starters, they should be aware that they have to take as much care at sea as they would on land. Don’t open suspicious emails, take care not to use unauthorized hardware like USB’s and hard drives and have anti-virus software on their tablets, phones and computers. They need to have the mindset that an attack is imminent and stop thinking that will happen to another vessel or in another area.

Larsen has also been looking into the “Internet of Ships”, the name of the phenomenon where technology is infiltrating more and more things in ships – a play on the phrase “Internet of Things.” This can cause more exposure to cyber risk, but also can make a captain’s job harder. Knowing they are being tracked and shipping companies have access to their every move can mean every decision is questioned and analysed by people not on board or aware of what else is going on. With the number of systems and reports that need to have data input and still have to be hand-written for crews to see on deck, it can be that technology is not seen as the help that many shipping companies want it to be. It is seen as limiting flexibility for the captain and their crew and therefore they don’t want to continuously have new systems implemented, leaving them at risk.

The IMO is working hard along with those like Larsen to ensure that vessels, seafarers and ports are as safe as possible when it comes to cybersecurity. It is a long process, and one that we’ll keep an eye on and report on as it develops.

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