Cybersecurity on the high seas

Cybersecurity on the high seas

Author:  Ian Flanagan, Group CEO, Voly

With their preference for hijacks, machine-gun-point robbery and hostage-taking ransoms, 21st-century pirates on the high seas are a far cry from the pirates that we have all heard and read about.

Luckily, buccaneering is not a common threat to seafarers in 2019, despite the Somali piracy crisis which reached its peak between 2007 to 2012. In fact, partly as a result of improvements to naval and maritime security in response to that crisis, modern piracy is even more rare than it was only a few years ago.

In the article Cyber Security at Sea: The Real Threats, David Rider of CSO Alliance, an international organisation that works to protect the maritime community from criminals, suggests that one ongoing threat to ocean-going security is from the crew itself, and the way they handle the vessel’s finances.

A case in point is that of superyachts, where accountancy solutions designed for these and other high net-worth assets have hitherto been rather low-tech and not necessarily designed for the fast-paced yachting industry.  Though captains and crew give yacht owners and guests a top-class experience, they are not trained accountants.  Having to manage budgets and expenses which are more often associated with multimillion-pound businesses can be a real Achilles heel in terms of the time required of inputting accounts onboard, and, of course, any security issues that may arise as a result.

This is surprising considering how technically advanced these yachts are, embracing technology that would leave most business offices and homes drifting in their wake. Step onboard and you may discover ultra-HD laser projectors; invisible, scannable audio speakers; high-speed, high-bandwidth internet connection; futuristically intuitive Bluetooth ‘beacons’ which automatically set the music and lighting of a room to your exact, personal tastes as you walk onboard.

Yet many of these superyachts input sensitive expense data – which, by its very nature, can mean five, six and even seven-figure sums – manually into an Excel file and send it by unencrypted email to a family office or management company. Not to mention other highly sensitive, personal information that thieves and hackers would love to get their hands on. Vast amounts of data – which could include everything from fuel costs, the owner’s food and beverages, to entertainment bills – is often insecurely exposed.

One company, Voly, have introduced a modern accounting solution for superyachts that tackles the big issues of expenses and security. Its smartphone ‘crew app’ scans and records receipts instantly, giving levels of accuracy and time-saving unthinkable with the old systems. With this, and a high-limit, prepaid card with a fully integrated payment platform, yacht captains can manage spend and share reports with owner, yacht manager and accountant all in real time.   

This kind of technology could mean that the days of captain and crew struggling to reconcile the accounts at the end of the month, wading through receipts and inputting data into an Excel file, could soon be a thing of the past.

Accounting efficiency is one thing, but what about security? Reliable internet and WiFi access are as vital a requirement on a superyacht as they are everywhere else. But these cyber-luxuries come with risks, which yacht owners and crew members have to face along with the rest of us, such as vulnerability to malwares, ransomwares, phishing and virus attacks that might sneak in via emails, usernames, passwords and the like.

Voly’s end-to-end data encryption is amongst the most effective strategies for mitigating the damage caused by data loss. New regulations in the United States and Europe now require encryption.  This method of data security prevents access to data through a user’s email address – and with two-factor log-in authentication built in as standard, such a system is every yacht-hacker’s worst nightmare.

Cyber-security is an issue that can’t be understated and is of huge concern across the maritime industry. There’s even a Maritime Cyber Security Awareness (MCSA) training course, supported by the UK’s Maritime & Coastguard Agency, which runs alongside ‘Be Cyber Aware At Sea’, an awareness-raising campaign across the global maritime and offshore industry.

The equivalent of falling asleep at the ship’s wheel is the phenomenon known as ‘cyber fatigue’, a sense of exhaustion and impaired vigilance in the face of endless exposure to cyber-assault. It is taken particularly seriously by naval forces and the maritime industry, whose vessels are seen as soft-cyber-targets because they rely so heavily on global navigation satellite systems (GNSS), whose signals can be weak, lacking in encryption or authentication, and whose personnel, in some cases, can be constantly under (cyber) fire.

Seaports, through which more than 80% of global trade moves, also depend increasingly on computerised systems, some of which are even fully automated in terms of their day-to-day operation. If, for example, cargo handling and container tracking are delayed or hindered as a result of compromised cyber-security, the knock-on effect to the supply chain can be huge.

But it’s not all over for old technology. Google’s futuristic ‘Project Loon’ is an ambitious dream to deliver a high-speed internet connection to the most remote places – including right out there in the middle of the ocean. And the Loon is set to be realised by means of good old-fashioned, high-altitude hot-air balloons (albeit ones the size of tennis courts and powered by solar panels) that will accompany yachts around the world.

However, as with the real pirates in that (almost) bygone age, the virtual modern-day pirates are also a long way away from ruling the waves.  Peace of mind, that often-elusive source of relaxation, could be starting to appear on the horizon – in accounting terms at least – for crew and yacht owners alike, as high-tech accounting mirrors other aspects of the superyacht experience.  One luxury that superyachts presumably can afford, is to know that their personal and financial data is as safe as the superyacht they’re sailing on.