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USCG warns of vessel vulnerabilities following cyber-attack

The United States Coast Guard (USCG) has highlighted the vulnerabilities of vessels to cyber-attack, using an example of recent attack onboard a deep draft vessel.

{mprestriction ids="1,2"}In February 2019, a vessel sailing for the Port of New York and New Jersey began experiencing a cyber-attack that impacted its shipboard network. According to a team of USCG-led cyber experts, while malware degraded the functionality of the onboard computer system, essential vessel control systems had not been impacted. Nevertheless, the interagency response found that the vessel was operating without effective cybersecurity measures in place, exposing critical vessel control systems to significant vulnerabilities.

According to the USCG, before the incident took place, the security risk to the shipboard network was well-known by the crew. Although they did not use onboard computers to carry out personal tasks, the same shipboard network was used for official business, including the update of electronic charts, cargo data management, and shore communication.

The USCG says that it is unknown whether this vessel is representative of the current state of cybersecurity onboard deep draft vessels. However, with engines that are controlled by mouse clicks, and growing reliance on electronic charting and navigation systems, protecting these systems with proper cybersecurity measures is as essential as controlling physical access to the ship or performing routine maintenance on traditional machinery, confirmed the USCG in a statement.

The Coast Guard urges the maritime community to adapt to changing technologies and the increasing threat by recognising the need for and implementing basic cyber hygiene measures. The USCG has recommended the following measures to maximise cybersecurity:  

  • Segment Networks. “Flat” networks allow an adversary to easily manoeuvre to any system connected to that network. Segment your networks into “subnetworks” to make it harder for an adversary to gain access to essential systems and equipment.
  • Per-user Profiles & Passwords. Eliminate the use of generic log-in credentials for multiple personnel. Create network profiles for each employee. Require employees to enter a password and/or insert an ID card to log on to onboard equipment. Limit access/privileges to only those levels necessary to allow each user to do his or her job. Administrator accounts should be used sparingly and only when necessary.
  • Be Wary of External Media. This incident revealed that it is common practice for cargo data to be transferred at the pier, via USB drive. Those USB drives were routinely plugged directly into the ship’s computers without prior scanning for malware. It is critical that any external media is scanned for malware on a standalone system before being plugged into any shipboard network. Never run executable media from an untrusted source.
  • Install Basic Antivirus Software. Basic cyber hygiene can stop incidents before they impact operations. Install and routinely update basic antivirus software.
  • Don’t Forget to Patch. Patching is no small task, but it is the core of cyber hygiene. Vulnerabilities impacting operating systems and applications are constantly changing – patching is critical to effective cybersecurity. Maintaining effective cybersecurity is not just an IT issue, but is rather a fundamental operational imperative in the 21st century maritime environment. The Coast Guard therefore strongly encourages all vessel and facility owners and operators to conduct cybersecurity assessments to better understand the extent of their cyber vulnerabilities.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) provides several free resources to help shipowners assess the state of their networks and identify cyber vulnerabilities. One such resource is National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Centre’s (NCCIC) Hunt and Incident Response Team (HIRT). Any company can request HIRT services by visiting their website  {/mprestriction}

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