Sea Breezes Editor, Hamish Ross

A growing threat to global shipping

Back in mid May, Britain was shocked by a ‘cyber attack’ on IT systems within the National Health Service (NHS). For a few days, the normal running of the NHS was severely disrupted with systems “crashing” in hospitals and doctors’ surgeries with operations having to be cancelled and ambulance services diverted.

Less than six weeks on, at the end of June, a new cyber attack (called “Petya”) affected computer servers across Europe and created huge problems for one of the world’s shipping giants – AP Moller Maersk. All of its business units were affected by the resulting global IT breakdown with its terminals at major ports such as New York, Barcelona and Mumbai having to shut down.

While Maersk was understandably cautious about declaring the financial impact on its business (one report estimated a value of £46m), there is no doubt that even the largest companies in shipping or in other industry or government sectors, will struggle with the likely reputational damage should their operations be so seriously compromised. In the world of container shipping, customers can simply move to another global competitor if reliability cannot be guaranteed.

No doubt the “Petya” attack will be the subject of much discussion and teeth gnashing in Corporate boardrooms around the world as companies decide what financial and human resource they commit towards protecting their businesses.

This is not a new issue, however. Leaving aside the financial and commercial consequences, I have often worried – in an operational sense – about how the growing dependence on technology for all navigational and safety systems could be an Achilles heel for transport companies, with networks brought to a halt in a flash should systems be disabled because of genuine technical breakdowns or due to this growing threat of cyber crime.

The training which my generation of seafarers received might look somewhat rudimentary and old fashioned from the perspective of the second decade of the 21st century. Perhaps the need for some of the skills that we developed in the pre-computer age will be re-evaluated in the light of the cyber threats that seem to loom large in the modern world.

The growing threat of cyber attacks is highlighted in the Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (AGCS) Safety & Shipping review 2017, featured in this issue’s ‘From the Lookout’.