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Shipping industry vulnerable to cyber attacks

Feb 13, 2018
Gadi Binness, CEO of and, looks at some of the dangers of high-tech shipping.


Cybercriminals can attack anywhere – including at sea. The shipping industry is not immune to cyberattacks. In fact, it may be especially vulnerable, and new technological advances could make the situation worse. Ken Munro, of cyber security expert Pen Test Partners, has outlined some of the security risks plaguing ships. Ken said a major issue lies in maritime satellite communications, which sometimes supply an abundance of information that could be used in phishing scams. Weak passwords exacerbate the problem. Many organisations use systems that were developed before cybersecurity was a top concern.

High-tech ships could be vulnerable to hacking

The Yara Birkeland is an autonomous container ship developed by Norwegian company Yara International; the ship is expected to launch in 2018 (see The Mover January 2018, page 18). Meanwhile, in an 88-page white paper, Rolls-Royce makes the case that autonomous ships should be the future of the shipping industry and have the potential to reduce operating costs.

While this is exciting for the shipping industry, some may see reason for caution regarding increases in automation.

We’ve already seen that modern, highly connected cars are vulnerable to hackers. In 2015, an article in Wired Magazine detailed how it was possible to control a Jeep remotely, going so far as to cut the transmission. As cars become controlled more by computers, and less by humans, the fear is that the risk of hacking will only grow.

It seems reasonable to apply some of the same worries to ships. In fact, researchers at the University of Texas in Austin proved that an $80 million yacht could be driven off its course by manipulating its GPS system.

Piracy could go high-tech

Although it’s nothing like what you see in the movies, modern piracy definitely exists – as the International Maritime Bureau's (IMB) Piracy Report Map, which shows the location of all reported pirate attacks for the year, makes clear. The map includes incidents where ships were boarded, fired upon or hijacked.

In a future filled with autonomous ships, it’s easy to imagine pirates taking advantage of unmanned vessels and taking whatever booty they want. It’s also conceivable that high-tech pirates could hack autonomous ships for various criminal purposes.

On the bright side, unmanned autonomous ships would decrease the risk of one pirate threat: ransom. These days, many pirates take crew members hostage to demand ransom, but if there’s no crew, there will be no one on board to take hostage!

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