Cyber security systems can enhance routine operational safety

Advanced cyber security solutions that protect onboard operational technology can go beyond protection and actually enhance a ship’s safety systems, argues Julian Clark from Ince.

It no longer takes a nation state to bring down a company; it can be done easily enough by a teenager with an internet connection. Coding software is increasingly efficient and accessible, and as in the 2008 recession, people with coding skills are turning to hacking for income.

The threat level and sophistication of hackers increases every day, and according to a Naval Dome report, the number of cyber-attacks has increased by 400% since February 2020. The number of attacks on operational technology (OT) has increased by 900% in recent years.

OT monitors events, processes and devices. This creates an opportunity for a hacker to “take active control” over vital processes with potential life threatening consequences. See for example the Colonial Pipe Line and Florida Water Treatment Plant attack, Such attacks underline the need to combine essential cyber security with increased vessel safety as a matter of routine management, not just to prevent or mitigate an attack.

OT cyber security technology monitors the values displayed on a ship’s safety systems and the vessel equipment itself. It then automatically identifies anomalies in these values caused by an intentional cyber-attack, but the system can also highlight discrepancies caused by equipment, computer or user error. If safety system or equipment values do not align with expected trends, or there are inconsistencies between data feeds supposedly conveying the same information, the cyber security software can alert crew or automatically restore devices to the proper configuration if required.

Safety systems themselves are also highly vulnerable to cyber-attack. In this instance, cyber security solutions can act as the ‘safety system for the safety system’. For example, a cyber-attack could result in the incorrect ballast tank fluid level being shown by the safety system. This would lead to dangerous instability when loading or unloading cargo. An advanced OT cyber security system would mitigate this risk by…