How shipping can embrace connectivity at sea in response to IMO cyber security deadline

by 19, Mar, 2021Innovation, Maritime 4.00 comments

Johan Machtelinckx, Technical Director at maritime publishing experts, Witherbys, discusses how the shipping industry can benefit from online solutions and still ensure operations are secure, in light of new IMO regulations.

Despite the experiences of technology and connectivity at sea continuing to be greatly different to those on land, a digital transformation in shipping is in motion, which will see increased automation and improved internet access in the years to come.

We have already seen the internet at sea becoming increasingly accessible and cost effective in recent years, meaning that ships are now more connected than ever, raising concerns around the associated cyber security implications and threat of attacks.

In response to these technological advances and associated risks, the IMO has announced the adoption of a cyber risk resolution to support safe and secure shipping. As a result, companies are now required to address cyber security issues and protection measures in their Safety Management Systems from January 2021.

Having to consider what this means for your organisation and facing the prospect of introducing cyber security measures on board may seem a daunting prospect but in fact these new regulations present an opportunity. There has never been a better time for shipowners and operators within the maritime sector to consider and embrace the online solutions available to them today, while educating their crews on cyber security.

The value in utilising connectivity at sea is hugely significant, even with satellite internet access at its current level. Although VSAT systems remain relatively limited, they already offer significant improvements in terms of speed and cost and online access is only going to improve further. In the years to come we are likely to see a real impact from low orbit satellites and significant players including SpaceX and Amazon entering the telecom industry with Starlink and Project Kuiper respectively.

It is no secret that connectivity at sea has its limitations and software developers are creating products specifically for the industry with this in mind – the notion that ‘this will not work on land without a fast connection so it won’t work at sea’ no longer applies and is one misconception that should be challenged to make the most of digital solutions. Assess what different technological systems would benefit your operations and be prepared to invest in their development.

Faced with technological challenges and new cyber security regulations, it is no surprise that some operators in the shipping industry remain cautious about adopting technology. In reality, however, there are potentially great benefits in doing so, whilst mitigating the associated cyber risks.

For example, one of the best ways that shipping companies can benefit from digitalisation at a minimum risk is by employing browser-based systems for connected activity.

Accessing content through a browser such as Google Chrome or Microsoft Edge means that everything runs inside the browser itself and acts as a self-contained, secure ‘sandbox’ – a tightly controlled environment where programs can be run. Sandboxes restrict access to the host device (such as local files or network connection), providing another layer of protection against new security threats.

What happens in the sandbox, stays in the sandbox. Combined with a whitelist of trusted web addresses, it avoids system failures and keeps software vulnerabilities from spreading.

When initially connected to the internet, whether in port or at sea, browser-based systems can also update and cache all relevant information, meaning that users do not have to be connected to the internet to view it thereafter. With these systems able to operate successfully even at slow internet speeds, this is an important example of where technology can be embraced for the benefit of a ship’s operations, while mitigating cyber security risks at the same time.

These considerations were hugely important when we developed our new maritime library e-reader, Witherby Connect. We wanted to create a platform that allows seafarers to access the latest information and guidance instantly and easily, while ensuring that cyber security, flexible access and increased data were at its heart.

In trials onboard ships over the last three months, feedback has shown that the platform has been easy to use and ships with download speeds as low as 0.3 Mbps have successfully been able to access it while deep at sea, highlighting that valuable technology is available and workable at sea, even when faced with limitations on the quality of connectivity on board.

As we strive to make ships as safe and efficient as possible, improved technology and more effective connectivity are going to be vital and when you consider these benefits, they far outweigh those associated with cutting back on digital measures to ward off the threat of cyber attacks and to avoid administrative exercises to meet IMO requirements.

As operations at sea become even more reliant on technology in the future, there is no better time to get ahead of the curve on connectivity and cyber security. With a world of opportunities already out there, by engaging now, shipping companies can not only benefit today, but also be prepared to prosper from continued digitalisation in the future too.


The views presented hereabove are only those of the author and do not necessarily those of  SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion  purposes only.


Johan Machtelinckx is Technical Director at maritime publishing experts, Witherbys. Witherbys is one of Scotland’s largest and most successful publishing companies, exporting a portfolio of over 400 specialist titles in the shipping sector to more than 110 countries.


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