Once in a blue moon we have a business owner dismiss security risk based on claiming they are simply not interesting enough, or not valuable enough, to be targeted by malicious actors. They see themselves as isolated, perhaps somewhat like ships at sea. Well, even ships at sea are targeted and the recommendations from the United States Coast Guard should sound familiar to everyone.
The Department of Homeland Security / U.S. Coast Guard has released a Safety Alert with recommended cybersecurity best practices for commercial vessels. With a dynamic cybersecurity threat landscape and growing reliance on technology to support vessels, the maritime community can help strengthen their defenses by implementing the following basic cybersecurity measures:
Implement network segmentation.
Create network profiles for each employee, require unique login credentials, and limit privileges to only those necessary.
Be wary of external media.
Install anti-virus software.
Keep software updated.
We encourage vessel and facility owners and operators to review the U.S. Coast Guard’s Safety Alert 06-19 for additional information, see CISA’s Tip on Securing Network Infrastructure Devices, and implement the recommended cybersecurity measures. Specifically, US Coast Guard strongly encourages all vessel and facility owners and operators to conduct cybersecurity assessments to better understand the extent of their cyber vulnerabilities. We have yet to work with maritime clients, although headquartered in Portland, Maine, does mean that we deal with one of the most active shipping ports in New England. Our cybersecurity credentials and capabilities are a solid fit for those in the industry. For operators and vessels that mention this specific safety alert, we’ll offer a no-cost and no-obligation consultation and overview audit (up to two hours) to review existing practices. Even if your organization has IT staff, we can offer insight. If you like how we work, and would like to do more with our team, then we hope that our on-demand services without long-term contracts appeal to your needs.
Full text of Safety Alert 06-19:
In February 2019, a deep draft vessel on an international voyage bound for the Port of New York and
New Jersey reported that they were experiencing a significant cyber incident impacting their shipboard
network. An interagency team of cyber experts, led by the Coast Guard, responded and conducted an
analysis of the vessel’s network and essential control systems. The team concluded that although the
malware significantly 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.
Prior to the incident, the security risk presented by the shipboard network was well known among the
crew. Although most crewmembers didn’t use onboard computers to check personal email, make
online purchases or check their bank accounts, the same shipboard network was used for official
business – to update electronic charts, manage cargo data and communicate with shore-side facilities,
pilots, agents, and the Coast Guard.
It is unknown whether this vessel is representative of the current state of cybersecurity aboard 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. It is imperative that the maritime community adapt to changing technologies
and the changing threat landscape by recognizing the need for and implementing basic cyber hygiene
In order to improve the resilience of vessels and facilities, and to protect the safety of the waterways in
which they operate, the U.S. Coast Guard strongly recommends that vessel and facility owners,
operators and other responsible parties take the following basic measures to improve their
- Segment Networks.
“Flat” networks allow an adversary to easily maneuver 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 vessel owners assess the state of their networks and identify
cyber vulnerabilities. One such resource is National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration
Center’s (NCCIC) Hunt and Incident Response Team (HIRT). The NCCIC HIRT is DHS’s front line
entity for proactively hunting for malicious cyber activity and responding to cyber incidents. HIRT’s
world-class experts lead response, containment, remediation, and asset recovery efforts in
government, critical infrastructure and private sector organizations. Any company can request HIRT
services by visiting their website https://www.us-cert.gov or by calling the NCCIC 24×7 watch floor at
(888) 282-0870. Following a DHS HIRT engagement, the company will receive a confidential report
with analysis and mitigation recommendations, as well as assistance in restoring services.
Please note the Coast Guard has released Marine Safety Information Bulletin (MSIB) 04-19 also related
to maritime cyber issues and which covers slightly different subtopics including recent email phishing
attempts targeted at commercial vessels. Other MSIBs are available here:
This safety alert was created by U.S. Coast Guard Sector New York. This alert is provided for
informational purposes only and does not relieve any domestic or international safety, operational or
material requirement. Questions may be addressed to the Safety and Security Office, Coast Guard
Sector New York at D01-SMB-SecNY-VDO@uscg.mil or to the Sector NY Command Center at 718-