Not on My Yacht! What You Need to Know About Ships Infected by Malware


You know that your smart refrigerator and your robo-vacuum are susceptible to malware — or, at least, you should know that. Stories of IoT devices becoming targets of cyber attack have been rampant since smart tech first became available on the consumer market. However, while you should be taking steps to close security gaps in these devices by hardening your home network, there might be another high-tech, super advanced, smart toy in your possession that is equally likely to get hacked: your boat.

Many modern vessels come equipped with paperless navigation, on-board Wi-Fi and even automation, making them floating supercomputers. Unfortunately, these computers can be targeted in cyber attacks like any others because they are connected to the web.

Even if you don’t own a boat, many similar technologies are swiftly being adapted for use in cars, bikes and even scooters — so it pays to know how to stay digitally safe on the high seas.

A Spate of Seagoing Cybercrime


While pirates and scurvy seem like the only real fears sailors face, the truth is that modern ships are victims of cybercrime much more frequently than most people realize. In fact, cybersecurity incidents have become so common that the international shipping industry has published a telling handbook on how to identify cyberattacks and respond appropriately. Unfortunately, many of the issues affecting onboard systems are mysterious; they can mimic technical issues and cause extensive delays before finding resolution. Worse, because the industry’s plight has long been ignored, attacks often remain ongoing without actionable solutions.

Take, for example, a virus of the Electric Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS). When ECDIS are installed on vessels, they do away with paper charts entirely. Thus, when an ECDIS goes down, it can strand a ship for days or weeks until the issue is identified. In one case, a technician spent weeks trying to troubleshoot the technical disruption, and in the end, he was unable to identify the source and means of infection. The cost in the delay (and the cost of the diagnostics and repairs) amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Newer types of malware affect boats, too. One report details a ship that was infected by not just one but two different ransomwares. The experience was so overwhelming that the ship owner paid the ransom to free his vessels from the plight — despite all the evidence that states paying the ransom won’t help you recover your data or your device.

There are hundreds of stories that follow these lines: Vessels are befuddled by malware, and owners outlay tons of cash to identify the issue and find a solution. It isn’t terribly different from how average device users respond when their devices succumb to cyberattack. Thus, it is important that ship owners and others alike understand how to keep their connected machines safe in the digital world.

A Sea Shanty for Your Safety

The fact is that being large and complex is not a guarantee of security for internet-connected devices or machines. Whether you have a Wi-Fi-enabled cruise ship, a smart dinghy or an IoT vacuum, you need to be smart about how you use and protect your device and network.

Though comprehensive studies on cyberattacks on ships and boats hardly exist, in most cases, experts have identified human error as the cause of most insecurity and issues — which is unsurprising. Even amongst landlubbers, human error is responsible for most cyberattacks and data breaches. Thus, learning as much as you can about common vectors of cyberattacks and modifying your behavior to avoid them is a good start. For instance, you should avoid allowing any unfamiliar drive (like a USB) to connect with your device, and you shouldn’t permit unknown devices to connect to your network.

It’s also wise to equip any device that connects to the web with maximum internet security software. These tools put up firewalls, enact encryption and help you navigate away from dangerous webpages. Some also come with antivirus kits, which scan attachments and downloads for corruption and keep malware from affecting your device.

Boat or no boat, you should know about the developments of cybercrime because the successes and failures of cybercriminals affect everyone. If major industries like the international shipping industry are struggling to defend against cyberattack, you need to work all the harder to keep your connected devices safe.

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