The  International  Maritime  Organisation’s  (IMO)  initiatives  to  ensure  physical  safety and  security  of   maritime  infrastructure  have  proven  successful  and  a  number  of regulatory  mechanisms  are  in  place  to  ensure  safe  and  secure  commerce.  The  IMO  is now developing guidelines against cyber-attacks on the maritime infrastructure.

At the 94th  session of the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) in November 2014, a proposal was adopted for ‘voluntary guidelines on cyber security practices to protect and supporting the operations of ports, vessels, marine facilities and other elements of the maritime transportation system’. Six months later, at the 95th  session of the MSC, it was noted that the Member States, international organizations and shipping industry should ‘collaborate on proposals for guidance on maritime cyber security’, and submit these by the next session in 2016.

The  above  initiative  by  the  IMO  is  noteworthy  and  clearly  suggests  that  cyber risks to maritime critical infrastructure are real and prevention, and mitigation of these is  an  important  issue  for  global trade.  Ports  (vessel  traffic  management  system,  cargo data  and  port  operations)  and  shipping  companies  (data  of  cargo,  ship  disposition, future  routing,  crew  management,  etc.)  are  vulnerable  to  cyber-attacks.  According  to one report, the online defences of 16 of the world’s top 20 container carriers had serious security  gaps.

Further,  ship-based  computers  and  servers  (electronic  charts,  onboard navigation  and  propulsion  systems,  safety  and  security  sensors,  other  devices  and instruments) are potential targets for cyber-attacks.

There    are    a    few    documented    incidents    of    cyber-attacks    on    maritime infrastructure    wherein    the    perpetrators    successfully    penetrated    the    networked computing  systems.  For  instance,  smugglers  hacked  into  the  port  cargo  handing  data and were able to locate the containers with drugs which were pilfered without detection. Interestingly, the smugglers even managed to tamper the cargo manifest and deleted the data of the shipment.

Spoofing,  a  technique  that  creates  false  signals  to  gain  control  of  the  computer system is a major concern for safety and security of shipping. Interestingly, during an experiment to test the penetrability of a ship’s command system and the probability of detection  of  cyber-attack,  the  students  at  the  University  of  Texas  successfully  spoofed the GPS of a yacht.

An  industry  report  titled  ‘AIS  Data  on  the  High  Seas:  An  Analysis  of  the Magnitude and Implications of Growing Data Manipulation at Sea’ has concluded that there is a 30 per cent increase in ships reporting false identities for a variety of reasons including   cargo   and   shipping   information   that   can   impact   on   commodity   prices. Further,  ships  have  been  reported  to  transmit  incorrect  position;  and  in  some  cases ships   switched   off   the   Automatic   Identification   System   (AIS)   and   the   long-range identification  and  tracking  (LRIT),  a  mandatory  equipment  fitted  onboard  merchant ships  to  transmit  their  real-time  position,  ‘go  dark’  to  avoid  detection  for  a  variety  of reasons.

Apparently,  the  Somali  pirates  ‘hand  pick  their  shipping  targets  by  tracking online the navigation  track of the vessel’ by breeching into the AIS and the  Electronic Chart Display & Information System (ECDIS), a computer-based navigation information system which can be used as an alternative to traditional paper charts. This information was critical for the pirates to track the vessel and launch an attack.

The  offshore  energy  infrastructure  such  as  oil  rigs  and  drilling  platforms  are equally  vulnerable  to  cyber-attacks.  A  reported  incident  of  spoofing  involved  hackers successfully tilting the floating oil rig which resulted in shutting its operations; it took 19 days  to  make  it  seaworthy  again  after  computer  malware  were  removed  from  the computers  controlling  the  rig.    According  the  British  government,  attacks  on  energy infrastructure  have  already  cost  UK  oil  and  gas  companies  approximately  US  $672 million  annually  and  cyber-attacks  on  energy  infrastructure  could cost  nearly  US  $1.9 billion to the energy companies by 2018.

Maritime cyber-attacks are of serious concern to both for the maritime industry and  the  marine  enforcement  agencies.  These  can  potentially  disrupt  economic  growth and subvert national security. Nearly 90 per cent of global trade is carried over the seas and any disruption of  the global supply chains due to cyber-attack  can impact  ‘just  in time’ cargo supply that can severely affect the production chain.

At  another  level,  fishing  vessels  switching  off  the  AIS  is  of  immense  concern. These  vessels  are  considered ‘eyes  and  ears’  and the first  line of  defence  for maritime enforcement agencies, but could be creatively used by terrorist to launch attack. There are also fears of fishing vessels engaging in illegal activities and ‘gaming the system and manipulating AIS data’.

While the IMO engages in developing minimum standards for cyber security for global  maritime  shipping,  the  national  maritime  agencies  need  to  engage  in  cyber security research  and  obtain a better understanding of  the  implications of  spoofing of the  maritime  infrastructure.  They  also  require  a  holistic  cyber  security  policy,  which should  include  specific  assessment  of  maritime  cyber  risks  including  other  critical assets,  which  are  dependent  on  maritime  commerce.  Cyber  security  awareness  and training  programmes  for  shipping  companies  and  port  authorities  and  educating  the fishing industry of perils of cyber-attacks would help in prevention and mitigation of the threat.

About the Author 

Dr  Vijay  Sakhuja  is  the  Director,  National  Maritime  Foundation,  New  Delhi.  The  views  expressed  are those  of  the  author  and  do  not  reflect  the  official  policy  or  position  of  the  Indian  Navy  or  National Maritime Foundation. He can be reached at

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