US Ports Vulnerable To Cyber Attacks That Release Dangerous Chemicals

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Ethan Barton Editor in Chief
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America’s seaports are vulnerable to cyber attacks that could “allow the release of harmful and dangerous chemicals” in heavily populated urban areas thanks to security gaps left unfixed by the Department of Homeland Security, a Michigan congressman warned Thursday.

The security gaps were pointed out more than a year ago by the Government Accountability Office, but DHS officials haven’t moved against them even though there have several digital attacks on U.S. port facilities in recent months.

The breaches “are particularly concerning, not only from an economic standpoint, but because of the dangerous cargo such as liquefied natural gas and other certain dangerous cargoes that pass through the nation’s seaports,” said Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich.

“If a cyber breach were to occur that tampered with the industrial control systems that monitor these cargoes, it could potentially allow the release of harmful and dangerous chemicals,” she said during a hearing of the border and maritime security subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee. Miller is chairman of the panel.

“The Coast Guard, and DHS as a whole, have been slow to fully engage on cyber security efforts at the nation’s 360 seaports,” Miller said. “The Coast Guard has not yet conducted cyber risk assessments, though some individual ports have taken the initiative themselves.”

Miller said an unnamed foreign military power is “suspected” of hacking multiple systems a commercial ship contracted by the U.S. Transportation Command. She also that “in Europe, drug smugglers attempted to hack into cargo tracking systems to rearrange containers and hide their drugs.”

Preventing digital breaches of port and ship facilities is vital because ports are near large metropolitan areas, said GAO’s Information Security Issues Director Gregory C. Wilshusen.

U.S. ports handle “more than $1.3 trillion in cargo each year,” Wilshusen said. “A major disruption in the maritime transportation system could have a significant impact on global shipping, international trade, and the global economy, as well as posing risks to public safety.”

The dangers are magnified because so much digital information and communications systems are used in ports to manage incoming and outgoing ships and their loading and unloading. Such systems “may be vulnerable to cyber threats from various actors with malicious intent,” he said.

Yet, DHS – the agency responsible for defending the nation’s seaports – has left vulnerabilities in maritime cybersecurity, even after Wilshusen issued a report in June 2014.

“Just as we have hardened physical security, we need to do the same in the virtual space for systems critical to the marine transportation system to protect against malicious actors,” Miller said.

“Reported incidents highlight the impact that cyber attacks could have on the maritime environment, and researchers have identified security vulnerabilities in systems aboard cargo vessels, such as global positioning systems for viewing digital nautical charts,” Wilshusen said.

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