Troubled waters: Cyber-attacks on San Diego and Barcelona’s ports

Andrew Tsonchev, Director of Technology, Darktrace Industrial | Thursday October 4, 2018

Last summer’s wave of ransomware attacks compromised port terminals and disrupted global shipping. Since then, cyber security has quickly risen to the top of the agenda for the maritime sector. Earlier this year, another port was hit with ransomware, and then, last week, the ports of Barcelona and San Diego revealed that they had been the victims of further ransomware attacks.

Whilst the 2017 attacks were globally devastating, there was no evidence that they deliberately targeted particular sectors; port terminals were merely caught in the indiscriminate wave of attacks. However, the widespread disruption these attacks caused across industry – from shipping to manufacturing – drew attention to the risk of IT cyber-attacks propagating into the industrial sector’s critical control systems. Operational Technology within industrial environments had previously been kept relatively separate from IT systems, and, consequently, relatively immune from cyber-attack. These attacks showed that the recent trend in integrating and unifying IT and OT systems had now exposed these systems to such indiscriminate attacks. 

The increasing convergence of IT and OT systems shows no signs of slowing, however. Hyper-connected ‘smart’ ports are bringing efficiency and precision while cutting costs. Yet, the intertwining of the physical and digital across ports remains a significant challenge for the cyber security teams tasked with their defense. Without rushing to conclusions, it is perhaps no surprise that the Port of Barcelona is in the process of a “Digital Port project,” launched last year to promote the digitization of the port environment. 

Although specifics have not yet been revealed, the recent attacks in Barcelona and San Diego appear to be targeted. Perhaps the inadvertent success of last year’s ransomware campaign inspired attackers to pursue the maritime sector specifically. Disruptions to Operational Technology can be highly detrimental to the maritime sector – these systems oversee critical port and ship systems. Any compromise could inflict reputational harm, significant financial losses, and physical damage. That we would see ransomware attacks specifically targeting ports was foreseeable. Many in the industry have been expecting and preparing for such an eventuality over the last 12 months. Now that attackers are actively targeting them, the protection of OT systems has become critical.

Darktrace has deployed AI to a number of companies in the maritime sector to specifically mitigate and defend Operational Technology. These systems are highly customized and bespoke, and therefore unsuitable for the use of off-the-shelf IT solutions. Darktrace’s cyber AI is able to automatically tailor to OT environments and learn a unique sense of ‘self’, regardless of vendor or technology platform.

Our AI is actively defending ports across the world – such as Harwich Haven Authority and Belfast Harbour – and protecting them against both targeted and indiscriminate attacks on their OT and IT systems. Defending these environments requires the ability to protect all technology systems, from the oldest PLCs and SCADA systems, to the newest IoT devices. Whether in the cloud, on a vessel, or on the mainland, Darktrace is able to passively defend your systems and identify cyber-threats in real time, without any impact or disruption.

Andrew Tsonchev

Andrew is a technical expert on cyber security and advises Darktrace’s strategic customers on advanced threat defense, AI and autonomous response. He has a background in threat analysis and research, and holds a first-class degree in physics from Oxford University and a first-class degree in philosophy from King’s College London. His comments on cyber security and the threat to critical national infrastructure have been reported in international media, including CNBC and the BBC World.