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Maritime Industry's Slow Boat to Cyber Security

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By Patricia Keefe

Ports making up for lost time

Despite the critical role the maritime transportation system plays in the economic health of the United States, and despite its fairly recent embrace of all things automated - cranes, vehicles, surveillance and even vessels - the sector has been slow to warm to the need to protect its digital systems and assets.

Post 9/11, security concerns about the nation's borders, air space and infrastructure, including ports, moved front and center for a brief moment before other concerns, like the search for victims and perpetrators, the cleanup of the site and city, and legislative debate over homeland security needs versus long-held citizen rights, pushed infrastructure to a back burner.

Still, critics kept up a steady drumbeat of worry over the safety of the nation's ports. In the ensuing years, as port automation grew, physical security was upgraded and nailed down, helped in part by the government's Port Security Grant program.

Mostly talk about cyber security plodded along under the radar until the publication of two damning reports that took the nation's ports, the U.S. Coast Guard and Homeland Security Department to task for not aggressively or adequately addressing port cyber vulnerabilities.

Published in 2013, the Brookings Institution's "The Critical Infrastructure Gap: U.S. Port Facilities and Cyber Vulnerabilities," is still considered valid today. Published in 2014 by U.S. General Accounting Office, "Maritime Critical Infrastructure Protection" (GAO-14-459), directed its critique primarily at the U.S. Coast Guard, which it said had failed to conduct a risk assessment that "fully addressed cyber threats, vulnerabilities and consequences." The GAO also complained that both maritime security plans required by law, and regulation generally, also did not identify or address those same issues.

"...Two If By Sea"

Perhaps spurred by those two reports, concern about lax port cyber security exploded in 2015, as the alarm was sounded loudly one after another, by a raft of industry organizations, government agencies here and abroad, academia, insurance companies, standards groups, think tanks and researchers. Almost simultaneous, together they released a wave of reports, seminars, white papers, primers, strategic plans, directives, resolutions, and even some legislative calls for assessment and information sharing - all addressing what they saw as a deeply worrisome lack of awareness, concern and action addressing the cyber security vulnerabilities of the nation's ports.

Particularly alarmed were participants in a Maritime Cyber Security Symposium hosted in 2015 by the Command, Control and Interoperability Center for Advanced Data Analysis (CCICADA), where speakers warned that "Maritime Cyber Attacks Occur in a World of the 'Quick and the Dead,' and that "Cyber Attacks on Ports and Ships Could be Catastrophic."

Maritime executives too came in for their share of criticism for failing to take the lead in making cyber security a priority, while the sloppy cyber hygiene of employees on the front line got them labeled as the weakest link.

Wherever you looked, regardless of source, the message was loud and clear - do something about cyber security or face serious business consequences - regulation even!

By 2016 - the focus was squarely on education - especially crew - and raising awareness that cyber security was a real and pressing danger and that a cultural shift needed to take place, placing cyber security on the same plane as safety management.

Now two-thirds of the way through 2018, much of the preceding 2.5 years also has been spent publishing cyber security guides and checklists, strengthening regulatory directives, completing five-year facility security plans, conducting cyber risk assessments, deploying mitigation efforts, and building relationships in the far-flung, highly complex and competitive port community through participation, in part, in the USCG's Area Maritime Security Committees (AMSC), and their cyber subcommittees, which can be found in most key port areas. ASMCs are comprised of representatives from the USCG, government agencies, law enforcement, shippers, port authorities, terminal operators, harbor vessels, even some clients - all working to identify and address security issues, as well as share information and create best practices, in their areas of operation.
Some of the changes we'll see this year into next is a much greater emphasis on cyber risk management, resiliency and collaboration, as the cyber security community tries to defend against complacency (even the best security efforts will take a hit at some point) by getting maritime companies and ports to create contingency plans to enable them to recover as painlessly as possible from a successful attack, and to encourage them to work collaboratively on building best practices and sharing information about attempted and successful cyber attacks.

Sep 17, 2018


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