If you thought that Blackbeard was a nightmare for ships at sea, imagine a modern-day, tech-savvy pirate, hacking into cargo ships as they roam the deep blue.
Today’s pirates are just as innovative in the tactics and technologies they use as they were in historic times. Where once the likes of Henry Morgan, Captain Kidd and Blackbeard boarded ships and stole cargo, the modern-day pirate relies not on a cutlass but on hacking skills to obtain more ill-gotten gains than Blackbeard could ever have dreamed of.
Pirates’ interest in cyber tools is in part because of the interconnectedness of shipping with the global internet. Today, the world’s 51,000 vessels that carry around 90 per cent of the world’s freight are equipped with modern technologies such as industry 4.0, which are vulnerable to a range of hacking incidents. These incidents include the ghosting of GPS systems, taking over of command-and-control systems, disruption attacks, ransomware and even cyber commercial intelligence gathering.
Today’s digital piracy threats come not only from external adversaries but also from “disgruntled employees who may misuse their privileges to attack a system or exfiltrate important corporate data”, says Prakasha M Ramachandra of Aricent, a global design and engineering company.
However, “there are no official records on the number of cyber-security attacks that have hit the maritime sector, despite the threat being real”, says Andrew Fitzmaurice, chief executive of Templar Executives, a British cyber-security firm. This is because companies are reluctant to report for fear of reputation damage.
However, Scott Bough, executive director of the Centre for Cyber Defence & Forensics, based in Ohio, estimates that, “a successful cyber attack may cost the equivalent of losing one or two ships for a shipping firm”.