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Hackers threaten global trade

Trade ports are increasingly relying on robotics and digital operations instead of human labor. This puts it at risk of hacker attacks, writes NBC News.

The global supply chain has been hit hard in a year and a half of pandemic operations. But companies shipping goods by sea now have to deal with another serious threat. Experts say that the shipping industry, whose total revenue this year reached $100 billion, has become a very attractive target for ransomware attacks. Above all, this applies to computerized ports that receive cargo ships. The pandemic has made the problem especially urgent, as people are ordering more goods home than ever before.

The shipping industry, more than any other, depends on smooth interaction between a number of digital systems that reside in ports, cities, trading companies, and ships. Nina Collars, associate professor of strategic and operational research at the U.S. Naval War College, said that “most of these systems were not created with the expectation that someone would try to tamper with them.” Unplugging a port could slow it down many times over, she said.

Ransomware attacks on maritime commerce have happened before. In 2018, the ports of San Diego and Barcelona in Spain were affected. In July 2020, hackers blocked South Africa's Transnet, which controls the country's maritime trade. The attack shut down operations at four of its eight ports. Although many of the company's computer networks were quickly restored, shipments had to be delayed for weeks.

Now, most cyberattacks on infrastructure companies only damage their business networks, not the programs that organize the equipment. But if hackers suddenly turned their attention to the digital processes of maritime commerce, they would gain great influence, enough to disable or even stop a cargo ship at sea.

Ransomware has grown dramatically in popularity in recent years — hackers use it to encrypt a victim's computer and demand a fee to regain access. But the May hack of the Colonial Pipeline in the United States showed that ransomware can be a threat to critical infrastructure. Following the cyberattack, coastal states in the southeastern United States ran out of gasoline and diesel fuel, and American Airlines canceled several flights due to jet fuel shortages.

U.S. President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency. The media called what happened “the largest successful cyberattack on oil infrastructure in the history of the country. Colonial Pipeline executives paid criminals a ransom of 75 bitcoins ($4.5 million at the time of the transaction), but in June the FBI managed to get hold of a locked key to their wallet and confiscated most of that amount.

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