Category Archives: Maritime Cybersecurity Topic Week

Maritime Cybersecurity Week Concludes on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

CIMSEC recently featured a series of pieces submitted in response to our call for articles on maritime cybersecurity, issued in partnership with Cyber Nation Central as a part of Project Trident.

Authors highlighted the ever-changing landscape of cyber threats and countermeasures. The maritime sector is particularly critical to defend because of its extensive and broad linkages. Yet ships require steady upgrading of their systems and defenses in order to a pace threat that is constantly evolving. Crews require regular training to prepare for possible worst-case scenarios, many of which could be precipitated by a seemingly friendly email. As state and commercial actors seek to reinforce their resilience against cyber threats in the maritime domain, they can look to improve their cross-stakeholder relationships with one another, and consider enhancing international law to provide more common ground for interpretation and action.

Below are the authors who featured during the topic week. We thank them for their excellent contributions.

Sieges, Containerships, and Ecosystems: Rethinking Maritime Cybersecurity,” by LCDR Ryan Hilger

“…as cyberattacks only continue to grow in pace, scope, and impact, we must engineer and operate for resilience to ensure that the company or mission does not irrevocably lose the credibility and trust needed to survive in the ecosystem. Beyond practical approaches like expansive defense in depth, zero trust architectures, and redundancy or watchdog mechanisms to balance against complex or emergent behaviors, the approach must separate the systems from the information.”

Sea Blind: Pacing Cybersecurity’s Evolving Impact on Maritime Operations,” by Mark McIntyre and Joe DiPietro

“Just as the sextant enabled celestial navigation of ships far from shore, and signal flags and lights allowed ships to communicate with one another more effectively, the adoption of digital technology has allowed sailors to shoot, move, and communicate even more rapidly. While this technology allows seafarers to navigate more precisely and communicate and coordinate with others more easily, it introduces new vulnerabilities to modern warships. Just as these systems assist personnel onboard ships, they potentially offer nefarious actors an attack vector to introduce malicious code into these systems.”

Perils of A New Dimension: Socially Engineered Attacks in Maritime Cybersecurity,” by Leonid Vashchenko

“Their objective will be to obtain unsanctioned admittance into the vessel’s systems. The targeted person can either be blackmailed or contacted by a fake profile of a trusted contact with the aim of dispatching malware via the victim’s access. An untrained and unaware navigational officer could install the malicious software to the navigational computer, under the guise of ‘colleague’s friendly tip.’”  

Tackling Maritime Cyber Threats: A Call for Cross-Stakeholder Cooperation,” by Henrik Schilling

“Apart from the law itself, implementing cyber operations into international law would create a certain degree of consent between international actors regarding the handling and use of cyber operations. These measures will not solve illegal cyberattacks, but they might provide actors a common ground of action in terms of defending against such attacks or initiating consequences or counterattacks.”

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at

Featured Image: Marines with Marine Corps Forces Cyberspace Command pose for photos in cyber operations room at Lasswell Hall aboard Fort Meade, Maryland, Feb. 5, 2020. (USMC photo by Staff Sgt. Jacob Osborne)

Perils of A New Dimension: Socially Engineered Attacks in Maritime Cybersecurity

Maritime Cybersecurity Topic Week

By Leonid Vashchenko

Maritime digital transformation is in its most rapid and turbulent era. Such a transformation offers substantial advantages and benefits, but with commensurate risks in the cyber domain.

On June 16, 2017, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted Resolution MSC.428(98) that “encourages administrations to ensure that cyber risks are appropriately addressed in existing safety management systems (as defined in the ISM Code) no later than the first annual verification of the company’s Document of Compliance (DOC) after 1 January 2021.” The same year the IMO developed related guidelines (MSC-FAL.1/Circ.3). While the resolution is a formal acknowledgement of the importance of cybersecurity by the UN agency, the guidelines highlighted that effective cyber risk management should start at the senior management level.

But even smart and elaborate risk management will not be effective until appropriate cyber awareness arises among all those engaged in the maritime world. The human element is the most valuable but also the most vulnerable in maritime cybersecurity. While modern technology affords a measure of protection against direct hacking, social engineering has become the most prevalent vector for cybercrime.

There is a popular opinion that the direct targeting of senior leaders (known as whaling attacks, or CEO fraud), is the most probable scenario for a lucrative cyberattack. In cases of success, offenders can get access to sensitive data or even entire networks and affect many processes within the system. In some cases, attackers could even get options to direct groups of ships. On the other hand, such a “whaling attack” is a complicated process with disputable chances of success. The obligation senior executives have toward cyber risk management is fast becoming a standard assumption. These leaders are becoming more and more aware of these hazards and are better maintaining prudent behavior to reduce cyber risks to themselves personally. Much simpler is the method of attempting to socially engineer other types of maritime workers, who at first sight appear less significant than executives, but who also enjoy broad access to maritime systems and networks.

There are two main groups that can be distinguished as desirable targets. The first group includes crewmembers onboard commercial vessels and naval ships, especially those who have direct access to the ship’s control systems or important elements of shipboard systems, like communications, engines, or cargo handling equipment and storage areas. The second group includes shore-based personnel, including technicians and advisors, third party contractors, especially those who have remote access to seaborne networks and contacts.

There are three critical areas attractive to attackers, including navigational systems and sensors, cargo handling and storage, and propulsion and power. In most cases the latter two elements require direct physical access to effectively access critical systems. In contrast, navigational systems are perhaps among the most advanced networked and digitally accessible systems onboard.

If cyber intruders got access to ECDIS (the Electronic Chart Display and Information System), they would be able to attempt offensive options such as jamming  or corrupting signals received from external sensors (GPS, AIS, Radar/ARPA, Navtex), gathering critical hydrographic information, and tampering directly with the Electronic Navigational Chart (ENC). While official ENCs often feature highly protected data, unauthorized access to the ENC’s manual correction option can be disruptive. Hackers could also go for the simpler option of disabling the operating systems of the ECDIS workstations, where in the majority cases this is a commonplace Windows operating system, and not necessarily the latest version. With the highly integrated bridge navigational systems of modern chemical tankers and passenger ships, attackers could even target the ship’s auto-steering algorithm.

Unauthorized access to such an important navigational system can be obtained with malware accepted by equipment operators via their email client and personal social media profiles. Today, with the internet widely available onboard modern commercial vessels, shipboard personnel can freely use their personal mobile devices or laptops for web access and private communications. At the same time, cybersecurity hygiene and best practices are often neglected, and the same personal devices can be used for operational data storage and transfer, including transferring data to and from ECDIS workstations.

Imagine a scenario where a chemical tanker was chosen as a target by a hacking group. Information regarding the vessel’s static and dynamic (course/speed/position) data, crew composition, type and quantity of cargo, destination, captain’s name, and other items of interest could be collected from the web. Attackers could search and exploit the social media networks of crewmembers, preferably the targeted vessel’s bridge team member. The task is made easier by social media networks and websites focused on professional groups and employment.

During the second stage, the stage of evaluation, the opted profile is carefully examined by the offenders for weakpoints. Nowadays, the majority of social media users are registered across several platforms, such as those focused on personal and professional connections, as well as entertainment preferences. Therefore adversaries can gain information not only about the mariner’s place of service but also about their family, hobbies, places visited, and other information that could be relevant to designing a socially engineered attack.

Their objective will be to obtain unsanctioned admittance into the vessel’s systems. The targeted person can either be blackmailed or contacted by a fake profile of a trusted contact with the aim of dispatching malware via the victim’s access. An untrained and unaware navigational officer could install the malicious software to the navigational computer, under the guise of ‘colleague’s friendly tip.’  

A socially engineered attack can be made to seem more credible when shore personnel, such as technicians or support desk members, are targeted. With almost the same measures in searching, evaluating, targeting, and hacking, perpetrators can infiltrate and attack even larger groups of ships due to how shore professionals often have access and jurisdiction over many vessels.

More nefarious intentions could include causing a chemical spill, setting a ship on a collision course with a naval ship or a passenger vessel, or damaging critical shore-based infrastructure. In respect of these scenarios, maritime cyber threats should be considered as a matter for the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS), and not only the International Safety Management Code (ISM). The ISPS code consolidates various constructive requirements so that it can achieve certain objectives to ensure the security of ships and ports.

There are some important requirements under the ISPS. The security-related information exchanges among the appropriate contracting agencies, both government and private, include collecting and assessing the obtained information and further distributing it. Correspondingly, definitions are included for the relevant communication protocols for vessels and port facilities for uncomplicated exchanges of information. Another important element is attempting to prevent any unauthorized access on a vessel, port facility, or other important restricted areas. Even if unsanctioned entry is not a threat, it is always regarded as a potential danger.

The ISPS also regulates provisions of different options for alarm-raising in case a security-related incident is encountered or potential danger is evaluated. It seems logical enough to apply similar requirements for maritime cybersecurity. There are several main tasks to consider: cybersecurity information collecting, evaluation and exchange between concerned parties; prevention of unauthorized access; malware and spyware installation or transfer; and appropriate training of personnel.

Eventually, regulation should be introduced regarding the human element. Specifically, trainings and exercises should be introduced for vessels’ crew and port facilities’ staff to ensure their awareness with the security plan and that there will be no delay in procedure execution in case of a real threat. Advanced cybersecurity training and education should be encouraged, especially for critical staff like watchkeeping officers or engineers. The purpose of such an education would be to gain knowledge and develop skills in cybersecurity in order to anticipate threats at early stages. Trained personnel should also be ready to prevent unauthorized access to critical equipment and systems and be vigilant for particular malfunctions that could be caused by illicit infiltration. In cases of potential penetration, staff should be skilled enough to insulate affected areas of the system without losing control of the vessel. Their proficiencies should include the ability to manage a transition to emergency manual control and utilizing classic techniques in seamanship and communication.

Maritime security, through cybersecurity, will become a much more complex endeavor. It will require a considered combination of the human element, technical innovation, management procedures, security protocols, and classical maritime know-how. Considering the lack of cyber-awareness among some mariners, a transfer of malware from a personal device to a ship’s navigational system is just a matter of time. The international maritime community should accelerate and strengthen efforts to develop adequate measures to withstand future challenges in the maritime cyber domain.

Leonid Vashchenko is a professional mariner, currently serving as a chief officer on board ocean-going commercial vessels. He holds a Masters Degree in Marine Navigation from the National University “Odessa Maritime Academy,” Ukraine, and is a active member of the Nautical Institute, London. His views are his own and do not necessarily represent the official views or policies of the organization or companies he is employed with.

Featured Image: Hamburg port (Wikimedia Commons)

Sea Blind: Pacing Cybersecurity’s Evolving Impact on Maritime Operations

Maritime Cybersecurity Topic Week

By Mark McIntyre and Joe DiPietro

Technology Disruption

Just as the sextant enabled celestial navigation of ships far from shore, and signal flags and lights allowed ships to communicate with one another more effectively, the adoption of digital technology has allowed sailors to shoot, move, and communicate even more rapidly. While this technology allows seafarers to navigate more precisely and communicate and coordinate with others more easily, it introduces new vulnerabilities to modern warships. Just as these systems assist personnel onboard ships, they potentially offer nefarious actors an attack vector to introduce malicious code into these systems.

Cyber is the ultimate domain for threat actors, providing strategic and regional adversaries alike with an effective way to target otherwise formidable platforms. We should expect to see more activity in the coming years from aspiring regional actors who aspire to project power, elevate their geopolitical stature – and perhaps make some money while they are at it – without incurring the major expenses of maintaining or surging military forces and materiel.

Advanced threat actors have proven their ability to take advantage of domestic and international supply chain complexities and dependencies, exploiting governments’ troubling dependencies on legacy information technology infrastructure and bureaucratic inefficiencies. In short, attackers will remain quicker and more adaptable than defenders for the foreseeable future. While we have traditionally envisioned naval engagements with ships, planes, and missiles interacting with one another, we need to expand our aperture to anticipate adversary efforts to attack our shipboard systems through cyber operations.

Data Explosion and the Future of IoT

A core mission of most western navies is to protect shipping lanes for energy and commerce. Given global commerce’s increasing reliance on digital technology, then surely navies will see their mission set expand to include protecting—or exploiting—global digital transmissions and understanding what all that data means. Further, with information and operational technologies converging rapidly, the United States and its allies must rethink traditional mindsets that separate investments in physical infrastructure and fleets from the underlying technologies that will increasingly power and manage them, and the associated mission systems on board. With the need to forward-deploy computing power and infrastructure around the world, often on short notice, vessels may in the future be better characterized as floating datacenters that happen to hold traditional weapons systems. As maritime operations evolve around technology futures that increasingly rely on computing systems and data, and as long as data remains attractive to adversaries, the need for cybersecurity defenders will only grow.

Data, as we hear, is the ‘new oil.’ Over 90 percent of the world’s data has been created in the last five years. We are using terms like ‘zettabytes’ now, and organizations are creating ‘chief data officer’ roles and data-specific enterprise strategies. Depending on the specific study, the growth rate for Internet of Things (IoT) devices is far exceeding that of traditional laptops, cell phones, and tablets. Over 30 billion devices are projected to be deployed by the end of 2021. IoT devices are used for specific applications that span many industry segments. As we look for the public sector application, a vast majority are in the “Industrial IoT” device segment below. There are many reasons for this growth, but the cloud increases application-specific value at a tremendous rate. There are other terms like Digitalization, Industry 4.0, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but they all embody the following characteristics that digitalization is creating:

  • more complex systems to support the growing efficiencies needed to protect critical infrastructure through automation
  • the ability to respond much quicker, and with greater accuracy, to operational threats

We are already seeing the introduction of autonomous drones, body-worn devices such as HoloLens augmented reality headsets, predictive maintenance sensors on engines or manufacturing devices, physical security and life control devices, and even connected installations. It is not science fiction to envision an operating environment where everything is connected and where all data contains hidden meaning that, left uncollected, constitutes an intelligence or mission failure. It is already happening.

Internet of Things (IoT) connected devices installed base worldwide from 2015 to 2025, in billions (Graphic via Statisa)

The Cyber Workforce

Success or failure in leveraging data and devices will depend upon humans, especially our information technology and cybersecurity defender teams. Because humans maintain and interact with these systems, we will long remain the primary target of adversaries. It is imperative that future technology adoption begins with recognizing the foundational importance of workforce readiness.

Commercial enterprises and governments alike are struggling to properly prepare their cyber defender workforce to adapt to new threats and take advantage of new security technologies. Many cyber defense teams grew up in an exclusively on-premises environment and are only now developing the beginnings of a cloud-native skillset. In addition, and of greater concern, we are not positioned to close the talent shortage in cybersecurity which some analysts estimate to be between two and three million unfilled positions. Technology providers are making impressive advances in creating cyber tools and solutions, but in doing so we have created what Gartner calls a “digital dexterity gap” where we are innovating at a much faster rate than customers—especially governments and warfighters—can absorb.

There is also an inverse relationship in play, according to one global CISO (Chief Information Security Officer) survey, where humans account for 95 percent of data loss incidents, while only around 1.5 percent of CIO (Chief Information Office) budgets is allocated to workforce cybersecurity readiness. We simply are not investing enough in teaching the workforce—from leadership to the newest recruit—how to operate safely online. Role-based readiness is critical to help users fully understand the risks of phishing and other attacker activities.

We are also dealing with the troubling signs of analyst fatigue where cyber defenders are simply burning out. If we see the future of maritime operations and cybersecurity as built around cloud-powered big-data systems and ubiquitous computing, then we must do better at providing the right proactive learning and onboarding experiences to give our people, especially cyber defenders, a fighting chance.

The future of maritime operations, much like other public sector and commercial endeavors, is where information technology, data, and devices converge. We should expect continued cyber-attacks against national infrastructure and military platforms. This will be happening amidst continual technological innovation designed to capture and make use of massive amounts of data, which will be protected by outnumbered and beleaguered security practitioners who will often not be properly trained to employ emerging technologies to counter threats.

Gamified Learning

Due to a variety of factors, including perceptions of slow technology adoption and the spartan demands of military service, defense ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to the cyber workforce talent shortage and readiness challenge. Building tomorrow’s cyber workforce is a fundamental societal challenge that requires governments, industry, academia, and communities to work together to attract and prepare individuals for cybersecurity careers.

One potential solution to this challenge lies in taking advantage of cloud-hosted cyber ranges. Providers in this sector are currently ahead of the market, but they are on to something that will be increasingly critical for military cyber defenders: force-on-force training in a gamified learning environment.

A cloud-based cyber-range provides an immersive, scenario-driven training environment that mimics real-life threats, responses and has proven applicability to Red and Blue team training, security awareness training, certification-path training, and proficiency examination. This learn-by-doing approach offers students a realistic experience to think like attackers while competing against one another in a gamified cyberspace environment. Simulated breach environments, sandboxed from operational enclaves but modeled to resemble real environments, help prepare an enterprise’s workforce for the stress, panic, and communication barriers they will face during a real cyberattack.

This sort of gamified learning introduces interactive, video game-like experiences that naturally attract younger talent and competitive personalities, and this approach has already been shown to improve student retention compared to traditional classroom learning. Intuitively, this is obvious: we must make learning fun and competitive. Independent studies reveal that students retain only around 10 percent of what they learn in a traditional classroom. After one month, by contrast, gamified learning flips that number, with retention at around 80-90 percent.

For defense organizations that may struggle to attract and retain talent, these cyber ranges demonstrate a commitment to investing in employee education and career advancement and meeting younger people where they live—online, using devices. Since future force development will require some level of IT acumen, this is an excellent chance to address hiring profiles and optimize recruitment pipelines. Cloud-based cyber range platforms are also highly scalable and will allow defense organizations to reach many more personnel globally than what can be done with traditional learning programs and exercises

Workforce Readiness for Tomorrow’s Defenders

Modern cyber-range platforms are designed to support a broad range of scenarios that may range in user experience from a walkthrough, ‘choose your own adventure’ scenario to ‘open world’ exploration. Naval organizations can create and map skills development themes to operational and IT focus areas to nurture employee interest, gauge readiness, and advance career paths in areas with critical skillset shortages such as:

  • Threat hunting
  • Capture-the-flag
  • Incident investigation
  • ‘Live’ incident response and containment
  • Failure analysis and cloud troubleshooting
  • Malware and memory forensics
  • Red-teaming and penetration testing

In addition to practical cybersecurity learning, cloud-based gamified learning can also address more specific naval warfighting and maritime use-cases:

  • Wargaming and engagement simulation: run through many different variables and scenarios at much quicker speeds and with more predictive capabilities based on data inputs
  • Combat Information Center drills: improve analysis of incoming datapoints and communications
  • Systems deployment and maintenance: allowing technicians and other personnel to learn and practice tasks with equipment before actual installation and servicing
  • Virtual technology evaluation: accelerating product security evaluations and efficacy for IT and operational teams.

Gamified learning can just as easily be tailored to general IT users and leadership teams, for example with phishing, online safety, and command and control exercises. Everyone can find a role to play. Some cyber range companies are developing very promising avatar or concierge features where advances in ML (Machine Learning) and AI (Artificial Intelligence) provide new employees and seasoned veterans alike with a virtual assistant to help personnel make the right decisions.

Cloud computing offers significant cost and performance advantages for gamified learning. Currently, most training environments are on-premises, requiring significant up-front capital investments in infrastructure and servicing, sometimes over $500k/month for an exercise; and they do not easily scale. Moving range infrastructure to the cloud will allow range providers to focus less on maintaining IT systems and more on providing the actual cyber learning, flipping training budgets from capital investments toward operational investments. Range providers need to get out of managing training infrastructure and environments and focus on providing high-quality, dynamic simulations.

Cloud-based cyber range technology platforms bring scenario-based immersive training and skills development experiences. Developer and IT teams will be able to focus on creating actual learning scenarios that are specific to attacker activities or user-defined use-cases and advance employees’ professional development.

Tomorrow’s Security Operations

The Department of Defense has spent the better part of the last year endorsing and directing components to start adopting Zero Trust architectures as part of a larger fundamental redesign of its networks to better handle modern collaboration demands, such as SaaS applications. This welcome development implicitly acknowledges a pragmatic ‘assume compromise’ posture that managing the usage of technology is inherently a risk management exercise. Zero Trust architecture allows an organization to implement proactive and centralized controls over users, devices, applications, infrastructure, and networks, all with the goal of protecting the most critical asset—data.

When incidents occur, Zero Trust helps minimize the ‘blast radius’ by containing attackers before they can compromise more of the environment. This topology is like a naval vessel, where one will house specific operations in certain compartments and limit access to those by role. Conversely, one can limit the spread of damage to other parts of the ship by sealing access to compartments during emergencies.

Due to the central role that IT will continue to play in a modern warfighting or workplace environment, staying offline is not tenable. In fact, the trends are clearly moving in the opposite direction: more devices, more data, more flexibility, particularly for younger individuals whom constant access to technology is an expectation and therefore a recruitment and retention issue. This is particularly relevant when some analysts suggest that 99 percent of usable intelligence collection will be OSINT, coming from commercial providers.

Cloud-First Platforms

The U.S. Navy’s rapid move toward adapting Zero Trust architecture is encouraging, particularly as it may serve as sort of a reference architecture for maritime partners and allies. It is even more opportune when we factor in the convergence of IT and operational technologies. Most net-new devices that will be deployed in the coming years will not be personal or organizational cellphones or other hand-held devices: they will be operational devices, part of the larger internet of things ecosystem, which will expand into billions of connected devices, all constituting points of intelligence and vulnerability.

From a cybersecurity perspective these devices must be protected, and we must control how we interact with these devices and how they interact with each other. These are already forcing a modernization of traditional security, incident, and event management (SIEM) and security orchestration, automation, and response (SOAR) platforms. Traditional on-premises SIEM/SOAR systems will not be fast or flexible enough to process and analyze incoming data with the exponential increase of data that is already occurring, and which will only accelerate. Technology providers are already moving security appliances to the cloud, and companies like ours—Microsoft—are rapidly deploying cloud-first SIEM/SOAR capabilities. The sooner a user adopts these, the better able they will be to get ahead of the curve on securing and monitoring their data estate. The ML/AI-backed automation built into these platforms will be a huge force multiplier for cyber defenders, taking more mundane tasks off their hands, and allowing analysts to focus more on the alerts and events that really matter.

Supply Chain Futures and Vulnerabilities

The Solorigate incident is a reminder that we as an ecosystem are collectively vulnerable to supply chain compromises. Defense organizations are at particular risk due to the vast networks of suppliers and subcontractors, and because of the long development and operational lifecycles of weapons and other systems, including fleet assets. While we are seeing promising investments in this area, for example around rapid development lifecycles such as ‘comply to connect’ and steady adoption of Platform-as-a-Service software-defined weapons system development, addressing and remediating supply chain dependencies will take years, and will require more flexible attitudes from procurement and contracting.

From a cybersecurity perspective, CISOs are increasingly focused on reducing complexity within their environments, for example by making specific commitments to corporate boards or management committees to standardize more of their security budgets around a core set of (cloud-native) technologies. Complexity is inimical to cybersecurity, meaning legacy and one-off cybersecurity providers will better serve their customers by aligning to large cloud providers’ multibillion-dollar investment strategies. Standardizing around these platforms and deprecating older and more customized tools will also ease the burden on cyber defenders.


Technology and data are agnostic: we use technology to advance mission objectives and we find meaning in ones and zeroes to advance our missions. We are already experiencing fundamental change in how we interact with data and devices, with existential implications for global security and international commerce. We in industry must and will continue to ‘shift left’ and build more cloud-powered and automated cybersecurity capabilities into our larger platforms and ensure that they are interoperable so that allied forces can properly communicate globally. These technologies must also be intuitive and usable so that they enable security operations and not add to the workload.

At the same time, we must work harder and more creatively to attract tomorrow’s cybersecurity talent who we will ultimately rely on to protect the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of national security systems and data. Fortunately, we can harness the same technologies that we will rely on to advance our missions to create more experiential learning that we will need to prepare tomorrow’s cyber workforce.

Mark McIntyre is a Chief Security Advisor in Microsoft’s Security Solutions Area, where he advises US government CISO teams on moving securely to the Cloud and cybersecurity modernization, focusing on areas like Zero Trust, modern identity, and modern security operations.  Mark helps CISOs understand Microsoft’s perspectives on the evolving cyber threat landscape and how Microsoft defends its enterprise, employees, and users around the world.

Joe DiPietro has more than 25 years of leadership and hands-on experience with enterprise security leaders including Microsoft, CyberX, IBM, Guardium, and Check Point Software. Within Microsoft, he leads the Global Black Belt team for IoT Security.  At CyberX, he was the VP of Customer Success and included both presales and post sales responsibilities.

The opinions in this paper are entirely those of the authors and should not be construed as official Microsoft positions, assessments, or recommendations. Customers are wholly responsible for ensuring their own compliance with all applicable laws and regulations. Information provided in this post does not constitute legal advice, and customers should consult their legal advisors for any questions regarding regulatory compliance.

Featured Image: Sailors stand watch in the Fleet Operations Center at the headquarters of U.S. Fleet Cyber Command/U.S. 10th Fleet at Maryland’s Fort Meade. (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Samuel Souvannason/U.S. Navy photo)

Sieges, Containerships, and Ecosystems: Rethinking Maritime Cybersecurity

Maritime Cybersecurity Topic Week

By LCDR Ryan Hilger

In feudal times, a king measured the security of his or her kingdom by the size of the city walls, the capacity of the granaries, and the ability of the archers. A strong defense meant the ability to withstand a siege and repel attacks while maintaining an acceptable quality of life inside the walls. Siege warfare brought the rise of asymmetric tactics to breach the walls: ballistas, catapults, and trebuchets, tunneling and sappers with explosives, siege engines, boiling pots of oil, and even biological warfare. Siege warfare has a long history, going all the way back to Odysseus and the Trojan Horse – the progenitor of the trojan attack in cybersecurity. But the Trojan Horse revealed the fundamental flaw in early defenses: once you were inside the walls, there was little that could be done to stop the adversary short of a heroic effort by your knights and militia at the point of the breach. Successfully resisting sieges is not particularly common in history.

At least until a decade or so ago, cybersecurity took a very similar approach to network defense. Strong firewalls, air gaps, intrusion detection systems, and alert network defense personnel were the best defense anyone could proffer in cybersecurity. The goal was simple: keep the adversary – amateur hacker or nation state – out of your systems. The attack methods were analogous to siege warfare: overwhelming of systems through denial-of-service attacks, buffer overflows to stop systems cold, trojans, and more.

But like the ancient and medieval eras, as the economic patterns changed, fortified cities found that the walls offered less and less protection. Insider threats, the increase in trading activities and the merchants present, among other vectors, all brought more threats inside the city walls and put more resources and people outside the walls. And this was well before defenders often realized an attack was underway–much like our digital domains today. Bubonic plague, or the black death, could easily be viewed in cybersecurity terms as a particularly vicious worm that spread easily among the population and caused nearly one in four to die. The plague generally came into cities on fleas or rats, not from an adversary easily seen. Though in the cyber arena, the losses can be much higher, as Saudi Aramco found out the hard way.

It would take several centuries for new forms of defense to emerge and supplant city and castle walls as the preferred form of protecting a nation state. Defending a country from a cornucopia of attacks is no easy matter, and the problems are not simple, but rather volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Perhaps the most iconic failure of legacy defenses came at the outset of World War II, where the Germans simply went over and around the French Maginot Line, circumventing all defenses and moving rapidly on Paris. The French, purportedly with one of the best armies in continental Europe, were out of the war in less than two months. But fighting in cities, with a myriad of rooms, walls, sewers, potentially hostile populations, and more, proved exponentially harder and more bloody, as both sides learned during the following five years.

In 2017*, the maritime industry collectively shuddered when the NotPetya attack, originally targeting Ukrainian utilities infrastructure, spread beyond the region and into the global information commons. The malware spread through a backend software program developed by the Linkos Group in Ukraine. Like SolarWinds in the United States, the software was widely used, and Maersk ran it on their systems. Their saving grace was a single, offline service in Ghana. Not exactly a comforting plan to ensure resiliency. The crippling attack had economic ramifications on a global scale, costing Maersk alone an estimated $250-300 million in damage and lost revenue, and more than $1.2 billion worldwide. After the attack, Maersk moved rapidly to improve their cybersecurity posture, and the company continues to place a premium on information and cybersecurity.

In the modern cybersecurity age, defenses like firewalls, air gaps, and encryption still have their place, but a reliance on a strong defense to prevent catastrophic defeat only makes the fall that much worse. The best defense, as with recent military history, is to assume that your position must be dynamic and your system able to respond and continue its mission despite intrusion or attack. In the language of the maritime industry, approaches need to be looked at from the perspective of containerships, not car carriers. Car carriers, like the fatal voyage of the MV Tricolor in 2002, show what happens when their hull is breached. MV Tricolor went down in less than an hour and a half as water surged through the voluminous open spaces. On the other hand, the containership it collided with, the MV Kariba, managed to escape with superficial damage. Containerships are hard to sink, at least as long as they do not lose too many of their containers.

Rethinking Cybersecurity

Today, cyber and information security is effectively siloed throughout the broader cybersecurity community, regardless of which industry it serves. Product teams working to deliver products to market and maximize returns are doing the minimum possible to get the products to market. They rarely, if ever, talk with the IT teams who run the enterprise infrastructure that they develop their products on. If they do, it is to improve services, capacity, and more, not to improve security or address threats to the product from the enterprise side. Yet that is the attack vector that both NotPetya and Solarwinds exploited, and it shows just how intertwined the enterprise environments are with both products and operations.

A modern approach to cybersecurity requires the maritime industry acknowledge three things. First, that security is complex, and we must treat it as such. Oversimplification of security measures and failure to acknowledge the complex adaptive system that cybersecurity lives in threatens the resiliency of products and reputations. Complex is different from complicated. Complicated requires understanding and can be fully described and managed, but does not allow for new or emergent behaviors to occur. Complicated systems are deterministic. Complexity acknowledges that systems may be used in ways different from how they were originally intended, or display emergent capabilities or behaviors that could not have been anticipated.

Second, they must accept that adversaries are already in their networks and control systems and act accordingly. The fundamental attribute of these complex ecosystems must be the absence of trust. This means that systems must be designed to produce resilience and mission assurance in the face of constant attacks and be able to continue operating. Zero trust manages all users, assets, and resources as inherently untrustworthy, and seeks to ensure credibility and trustworthiness.

Third, that the common element to the first two considerations is people. We do not design systems to operate fully autonomously, and general artificial intelligence is still a long way off. Every system, both enterprise and operational products, requires people at every step of the process. Currently, cybersecurity practitioners tend to focus primarily on technical solutions and processes to ensure the security of products and networks. But attacks require people to launch them, and networks require people to defend, patch, update, and otherwise correctly operate them, even as things become more automated. Electronic systems, whether embedded in the products or deployed on vast scales in the cloud, do not deliver value until people use them to create and maintain business value or desirable outcomes. Therefore, people must be treated as an integral part of the system, prone to failure, irrational or unexpected behaviors, turnover, and fatigue. Systems must be designed with people in mind.

Secure systems require the adoption of an ecosystem-centric approach to cybersecurity. Ecosystems are incredibly dynamic environments where actors – people, animals, microscopic organisms, whatever – continually work to survive, control resources, and at a minimum maintain the status quo and ensure the viability of future generations and operations.

The ecosystem from a cyber perspective includes everything discussed thus far: the products and operational systems, the enterprise systems that enable their creation, deployment, and maintenance, adversary systems, the neutral domains between them, and the people operating these systems on both sides. The closest analog is the program-level, which is inclusive of the enterprise system and product lines.

The Department of Defense has recently started to refer to this approach as “mission engineering,” but even that definition does not fully capture the dynamics of an ecosystem. The industry must place operational resilience or mission assurance as the ultimate objective, regardless of what havoc people may bring. Designing for resilience of the ecosystem means accounting meaningfully for the more chaotic events like geopolitical or geoeconomic actions, weather and natural disasters, and perpetual tension and conflict – the black swans and the pink flamingos.


Designing for resilience requires a markedly different approach from security. But as cyberattacks only continue to grow in pace, scope, and impact, we must engineer and operate for resilience to ensure that the company or mission does not irrevocably lose the credibility and trust needed to survive in the ecosystem. Beyond practical approaches like expansive defense in depth, zero trust architectures, and redundancy or watchdog mechanisms to balance against complex or emergent behaviors, the approach must separate the systems from the information. Understanding not only the desired operational outcomes that the coupling of the system and information provides, but making fully transparent the data and information flows to enable resilient defense of both systems and data. This must occur at the ecosystem level, not the individual system or enterprise-only levels. Failure to account for the defense of the program, not just the products, courts failure and the consequences that it brings.

The underpinnings of the global economy rely not on centralized control of a benevolent organization, but on the collective efforts of the global maritime ecosystem to take the necessary actions to ensure that the maritime commons remain credible and viable to transport the world’s goods. But the maritime industry must acknowledge that they are already under siege and act accordingly. As former Commandant of the Marines Corps General Robert Neller stated in 2019, “If you’re asking me if I think we’re at war, I think I’d say yes…We’re at war right now in cyberspace. We’ve been at war for maybe a decade. They’re pouring oil over the castle walls every day.”

*This article originally stated the NotPetya attack occurred in 2015, it occurred in 2017.

Lieutenant Commander Ryan Hilger is a Navy Engineering Duty Officer stationed in Washington D.C. He has served onboard USS Maine (SSBN 741), as Chief Engineer of USS Springfield (SSN 761), and ashore at the CNO Strategic Studies Group XXXIII and OPNAV N97. He holds a Masters Degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School. His views are his own and do not represent the official views or policies of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Navy.

Featured Image: Operation Specialist 1st Class Jonathan Hudson, assigned to the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh (CG-67), prepares to take tactical air control over a MH-60R Seahawk Helicopter, attached to the “Warlords” of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron Five One (HSM-51). (U.S. Navy Photo by Fire Controlman 2nd Class Kristopher G. Horton/Released)