Experts warn of increasing cybersecurity threats to African maritime industry


The number of cyber attacks around the world continues to grow, including those targeting the maritime sector. Commercial shipping lines, navies and governments must decide how prepared they are to protect their waters and ports from cyber threats, with African coastal states also being forced to face these new maritime challenges.

A recent attack that brought the problem to the fore took place in July this year when Transnet, a major South African rail, port and pipeline company, which handles 60% of the country’s container traffic through its port of Durban, has been affected by a ransomware attack. . This caused massive disruption and container terminals had to switch to manual handling of cargo until computer systems were restored.

Another notable incident took place when the maritime giant Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) was hit by a malware-based attack on April 10, 2020. Most notably, the world’s largest container ship and vessel company Supply Station, Maersk, was hit by the infamous NotPetya malware attack that destroyed 49,000 laptops, 1,000 applications and 3,500 servers in 2017.

Marines can also fall victim to cyber attacks, and at the end of June of this year, Automatic Identification System (AIS) data was tampered with to tamper with the British Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender in Russian waters.

On September 16, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) hosted a webinar focused on maritime cybersecurity in Africa, aimed at providing advice on best practices against cyberthreats. One of the speakers was Denys Reva, a maritime security expert at ISS Africa, who released a report last year highlighting the need for Africa to protect its maritime trade. 90% of all African trade takes place by sea and, according to Reva, evidence suggests that an attack on a logistics hub, such as a port, could quickly disrupt a supply chain network and cause enormous damage. financial.

“As cybersecurity slowly becomes recognized as an important dimension of maritime security, its integration into African maritime security instruments and frameworks must be accelerated,” Reva said.

Keynote speaker, African Union Cyber ​​Security Expert Group Chair Abdul-Hakeem Ajijola, noted ten best practices for ensuring the security of ship cyber networks. This includes ensuring that satellite communication systems (satcom) are on private IP addresses, regularly updating software, changing default passwords, creating separate bridge, room networks. machinery, crew, Wi-Fi and business on board ships, ensuring that USB ports are secure on ship and port systems and using strong passwords and encryption on all Wi-Fi networks on board.

Ajijola also recommended relying less on technology, training crews in cybersecurity, ensuring the safety of suppliers, and carrying out safety audits of ships and ports.

Regarding African countries and their navies, Ajijola said that navies often carry out intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions that rely on sensor and camera technologies among a multitude of software and systems. different communication skills. Warships and their weapon systems contain a lot of third-party software, maintained by foreign companies. Ajijola believes that indigenizing these capabilities is safer for fleet cybersecurity.

Ajijola mentioned that as conflicts become more cyber dependent, coastal African countries need a good understanding of the Internet of Things to gather actionable intelligence and data, possibly with the creation of units. or specialized orders. Structured career paths with cybersecurity programs, as well as consulting countries with cybernetic capabilities and cooperation with maritime stakeholders could greatly improve a navy’s cybersecurity.

The greatest maritime threat to Africa in recent years has been piracy and illicit trade, particularly in the Gulf of Guinea, the Niger Delta and off the coast of Somalia. However, maritime cybersecurity experts all agree on two things: first, that cyberthreats are increasing and second, that cyberthreats evolve with technology.

African countries have historically struggled to adequately control their territorial waters, especially against illegal trade, illegal fishing and piracy. African navies normally have modest and relatively inefficient budgets, leaving little or no room for cybersecurity, and this is a concern and needs to be addressed, ISS webinar attendees heard.

To benefit from the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the security of maritime routes, ports and ships should be a priority for African states. This includes protection against cyber attacks, the ISS said.

The Institute previously noted that cyber attacks on African maritime infrastructure threaten the continent’s recovery from COVID-19 and its long-term development and security aspirations. According to maritime cyber defense company Naval Dome, 310 incidents affecting maritime industries were recorded worldwide in 2019, a huge jump from 120 in 2018 and 50 in 2017.

The ISS has predicted that the number of incidents like the Transnet attack will likely increase across Africa as seaports seek to increase efficiency and effectiveness through digitization. In this case, the transport infrastructure, especially a port, presents lucrative targets for cybercriminals or other hostile actors due to the scale of operations and the many stakeholders involved.

For example, the port of Kennewick in the United States was hit by a ransomware attack in 2020, disrupting its operations. Hackers gained access to the port’s server and demanded a ransom of $ 200,000 to restore access to the data, which the port refused to pay. Criminals can also exploit vulnerabilities to steal or conceal goods.

Ports are attractive targets that are vulnerable to cyber attacks. Unless Africa urgently improves the security of its port cyber infrastructure, economic disruption like this could become the new normal.

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