U.S. Coast Guard Issues Cybersecurity Alert and Best Practices Guidance

The U.S. Coast Guard has released a Safety Alert with recommended cybersecurity best practices for commercial vessels. The July 8 alert says defenses can be strengthened by implementing basic cybersecurity measures.

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.

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.

In order to improve the resilience of vessels and facilities, and to protect the safety of the waterways in which they operate, the Coast Guard strongly recommends that vessel and facility owners, operators and other responsible parties take the following basic measures to improve their cybersecurity:

  • Segment Networks. “Flat” networks allow an adversary to easily maneuver to any system connected to that network. Segment your networks into “subnetworks” to make it harder for an adversary to gain access to essential systems and equipment.
  • Per-user Profiles & Passwords. Eliminate the use of generic log-in credentials for multiple personnel. Create network profiles for each employee. Require employees to enter a password and/or insert an ID card to log on to onboard equipment. Limit access/privileges to only those levels necessary to allow each user to do his or her job. Administrator accounts should be used sparingly and only when necessary.
  • Be Wary of External Media. It is common practice for cargo data to be transferred at the pier, via USB drive. Those USB drives were routinely plugged directly into the ship’s computers without prior scanning for malware. It is critical that any external media is scanned for malware on a standalone system before being plugged into any shipboard network. Never run executable media from an untrusted source.
  • Install Basic Antivirus Software. Basic cyber hygiene can stop incidents before they impact operations. Install and routinely update basic antivirus software.
  • Don’t Forget to Patch. Patching is no small task, but it is the core of cyber hygiene. Vulnerabilities impacting operating systems and applications are constantly changing – patching is critical to effective cybersecurity.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) provides several free resources to help vessel owners assess the state of their networks and identify cyber vulnerabilities. One such resource is the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center’s (NCCIC) Hunt and Incident Response Team (HIRT). The NCCIC HIRT is DHS’s frontline entity for proactively hunting for malicious cyber activity and responding to cyber incidents. HIRT’s experts lead response, containment, remediation, and asset recovery efforts in government, critical infrastructure and private sector organizations.

Any company can request HIRT services by visiting the website or by calling the NCCIC 24×7 watch floor at (888) 282-0870. Following a DHS HIRT engagement, the company will receive a confidential report with analysis and mitigation recommendations, as well as assistance in restoring services.

Read the full alert here

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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