US tackles port cyber security

The risk of cyber-attacks is increasing for US ports as more move towards automation. Photo: Yuri Samoilov The risk of cyber-attacks is increasing for US ports as more move towards automation. Photo: Yuri Samoilov
Industry Database

As more US ports turn to automation to increase the efficiency of their operations, the House Homeland Security Committee warns they could be at risk of cyber-attacks.

The security breaches were highlighted by the Government Accountability Office more than a year ago, but the warnings were dismissed by the Department of Homeland Security despite several digital attacks.

More than US$1 trillion of goods is moved through the nation’s seaports every year and in 2014, a major US port facility suffered a system disruption that shut down several ship-to-shore cranes for several hours.

Speaking at the House Homeland Security Committee’s first hearing to determine the country’s preparedness in the event of cyber-attacks on its ports, Republican Candice Miller, Subcommittee chairwoman, said: “While those kinds of innovations certainly reduce time and lower the costs of doing business, they also carry a risk.”

The Port of Long Beach (POLB), the second business seaport in the US, is just one port working towards developing the most automated and efficient container terminal in the US, along with its neighbour, Port of Los Angeles (POLA).

At the hearing, Randy Parsons, director of security services, POLB, highlighted the number of challenges faced in the sector for cyber security. “There is not a one-size-fits-all solution for all ports; it depends on the size of the ports, the nature of the business that goes through the ports and how they’re governed,” he said.

One such challenge, he says, is a lack of awareness and a lack of enterprise of ports’ security systems, but, he added it’s the “notable reluctance to share information on cyber security issues” that’s the real issue. “To acknowledge a cyber security event could potentially mean a loss of business reputation and public trust.”

With this, POLB says there’s a need to clearly identify the roles and responsibilities of the various government agencies involved in cyber security, including the Coast Guard, CSI and Homeland Security.

“We’ve tried to use incentives at our port to generate ‘buy-in’ and we’ve done that successfully through our Green Port Programme and our Clean Truck Policy,” said Mr Parsons.

“Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has incentivised, to a degree, cyber security matters by emphasising cyber security mitigation and vulnerability assessments in the recent grant year. We agree that subject matter experts need to have continued input into those grant awards. The spending has increased as a result of that but it’s imperative that FEMA maintain a focus on strategic thought and the current developing regulations,” he added.

A roadmap that provides guidance for industry decisions “makes sense” and will strengthen national security and cyber security posture, he said. And while it was agreed the United States Coast Guard is the “right agency to do the job”, Mr Parsons insisted “we need to create a fabric for all the working entities in the port” and create guidelines and standards if a difference is to be made.  

See the full hearing online.

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