Investigating Ways to Beef Up Maritime Cyber Security

By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent

Port Newark is almost entirely computerized. Loading and unloading are guided by GPS. That means a hacker could bring it to a halt.

Coast Guard Vice-Admiral Chuck Michel saw it happen in one Eastern Seaboard port.

“It was believed to be sort of a vandal or a person messing around, actually blocked that GPS signal from that computer’s ability to do that, and the port came to a halt,” he said.

The Vice-Admiral was the keynote speaker at day two of a symposium at Rutgers-New Brunswick on maritime cyber security.

New Jersey’s director of Homeland Security called maritime cyber attacks a growing concern.

“New vulnerabilities in the cyber world do allow actors to commit a number of cyber crimes, including altering manifests and container ids, disrupting terminal operations and stealing pricing documents,” said Christopher Rodriguez.

Is it mischief? Is it theft? What’s the motive? “Most of it is mischief and theft,” Rodriguez said.

And it goes beyond that apparently.

“We have everything from sort of hacktivists to terrorists to cyber vandals to nation states attacking private companies,” Michel said.

Admiral Michel previewed a new Coast Guard strategy for protecting against cyber attacks and talked about how disruptive they can be.

“It can be very disruptive. We’ve had instances where offshore drilling platforms, their dynamic positioning systems have come off place. We’ve had some internal threats where disgruntled employees have erased data,” said Michel.

“Cyber attacks are moving into a realm where they are directly damaging physical equipment. So it’s not just confusing computers and making screens change colors and irritating things like that. Now we’re getting pretty serious,” said Clay Wilson, American Military University (AMU) program director for cybersecurity studies.

Hackers can also jam or spoof a navigational signal, which can fool the mariner.

“If you don’t know where your position is and you’re out in the water, you would be led to believe you’re in a position that you’re otherwise aren’t. You could run aground, you could run into another vessel,” Michel said.

A hacker could also start a war, said Daniel Benjamin, who is dean of the School of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math at AMU, for example, by creating a fake electronic Iranian ship that would appear on computer to be off the coast of Israel.

“Anybody read about Iran hacking into Las Vegas Sands? I mean, this is a brave new world when you’ve got nation-states actually attacking, for lack of a better word,” Michel said.

“We’ve got great partners in the maritime industry. They’ve done a great job with physical security. We want to replicate that work in the cyber security realm,” said Michel.

You don’t often think about how vulnerable the shipping industry is to cyber attack. But once you hear the bad things that could happen, it’s good to know a roomful of experts is working to prevent it.