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Israeli startup helps protect ships from cyber pirates

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An Israeli startup is bringing the defenses of ships and ports up to speed, as the maritime sector focuses on the growing cybersecurity threats facing the industry.

Cydome, which first began operations in 2019, has launched an end-to-end cybersecurity solution intended to bring vessels and ports into compliance with new global regulations that came into effect at the beginning of the year.

Damage from a single attack can reach several million dollars for each incident, Nir Ayalon, CEO and founder of Cydome, told The Media Line. “A hacker can do several things. … A vessel is a very complicated system with a lot of subsystems,” he also said. 

“We are in a very special moment in the maritime industry,” he added, explaining that the entire sector is in the process of updating its onboard technological systems.

The year 2021 has ushered in a new era for maritime cybersecurity. The International Maritime Organization, a United Nations body responsible for regulating shipping, began implementing a series of regulations aimed at lowering the risk of cyberattacks on the high seas. As of January 1, all vessel owners and operators are required to comply with what is known as Resolution MSC.428(98), which aims to ensure that safety management systems are up to par.

As more and more devices onboard vessels are digitized, the US Coast Guard also recently issued a new set of guidelines intended to counter cyberattacks at Maritime Transportation Security Act-regulated facilities.

“The cyber landscape in the Marine Transportation System is continually evolving,” according to a statement from the Coast Guard. “Cybersecurity, safety and risk management are of utmost importance as computer systems and technology play an increasing role in systems and equipment throughout the maritime environment.”

Ports and ships have become an increasingly attractive target for hackers. The cybersecurity platform Mission Secure reports that attacks on vessels’ operational technology networks and systems have increased by 900% in the past three years.

Last fall, for example, Carnival Corporation reported that the personal data of guests and staff of Carnival, Holland America and Seabourn Cruise Lines were leaked in a ransomware attack. In June, Danish shipping giant Maersk announced a loss of $200 million-$300 million following an incident that disrupted critical systems and left it temporarily unable to process shipping orders.

As a result, more and more maritime companies are turning to Cydome for help. The Tel Aviv-based firm’s system already has been deployed in three companies, including an Israeli shipping company and a Dutch tanker operator.

The startup’s cybersecurity system is a hardware appliance with software that connects to the vessel’s network. Once installed, the solution maps all of the vessels assets — such as its communication system, engine and generator — seeking out vulnerabilities and patching them.

Eitan Yehuda is the director of technology at Cydome. He previously served for 25 years in the Israel Defense Forces in various technical capacities, starting as a naval officer and eventually being appointed to head the cyber defense infrastructure department of Mamram—the IDF’s Center of Computing and Information Systems.

“When we’re talking about the maritime industry — and this is actually why we decided to establish Cydome — we understood that the main threat will be cybercriminals but also nation-states, terrorists or hacktivists,” Yehuda told The Media Line.

He pointed to the massive oil spill that has drenched Israel’s coastline in tar, believed to have been caused by a Greek oil tanker. The Minerva Helen left Port Said, Egypt on February 11 en route to Israel and allegedly experienced a significant leak in international waters. Environmental experts warn that the cleanup of Israel’s beaches could take years.

While the incident is likely the result of an accident, Yehuda warned that a cybercriminal could easily replicate it.

“Just imagine if someone wanted to make this kind of disaster happen at one port,” Yehuda said. “He could easily remotely take control of the oil valve and open it.”

Israel is largely reliant on its three major international seaports — Haifa, Ashdod and Eilat — for commercial cargo. In fact, roughly 97% of cargo by weight arrives to the country by ship. For this reason, a seaport could become the target of an attack in the future.

While attacks do occur in the commercial sector on a regular basis, Yehuda asserts that most go unreported because companies are trying to avoid increasing their insurance premiums.

“The maritime industry is a very, very late adapter of new technologies,” he explained. “On the vessel, most of the technology is very old and they are not adopting any standard. This is the big issue.”

Maritime transport plays a crucial role in international trade and the global economy. In fact, nearly 80% of global trade by volume and more than 70% of global trade by value are carried by sea, according to 2018 figures released by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, or UNCTAD.