Coast Guard alert shows that even commercial vessel security is just basic government security

U.S. Customs & Border Protection Air & Marine Boat patrols past shipping containers.
Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Based on recent cyber incidents aboard commercial vessels, the U.S. Coast Guard issued a security alert to vessel and facility owners and operators that is essentially basic security practices, even ones that could potentially save governments from the ransomware attacks we see happening more frequently.

The report puts in perspective that basic security issues are universal and the real-world scenario documented by the Coast Guard is eye-opening and relatable to everyone:

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 crew members 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 measures.

The Coast Guard security recommendations include:

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.

Read the alert.

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh, co-founder/CEO of ProudCity and co-host of the podcast, The Government We Need. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or email at


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