Hackers at the Harbour

Hackers at the Harbour

Unveiling the Ripple Effect of the DP World Hack and Anticipating Readiness for Mitigation

In an era where digital connectivity is paramount, the recent cyber-attack on Australia's ports has sent shockwaves throughout the nation. The port operator, DP World Australia, swiftly responded by shutting down its terminals nationwide to contain a "cybersecurity incident." The stevedore, responsible for managing container terminals in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Fremantle ports (handling 40% of Australia's international freight), reportedly detected an intrusion into its system on November 10th.

This breach is not a mere isolated incident; instead, it serves as a stark reminder of the vulnerabilities our interconnected systems face in the increasingly sophisticated landscape of cyber threats, particularly in the maritime realm of a country that has 60,000 kilometres of coastline, 12,000 islands, third-largest Exclusive Economic Zone in the world, and 99% of international trade is carried by sea.

Supply Chain Disruptions

The recent RMIT University Centre for Cyber Security Research and Innovation report emphasises that, in a maritime scenario, the importance of maintaining systems availability is considered more crucial compared to systems confidentiality (the ability to assure that the system is capable of preventing access to data by any unauthorised entity) and integrity (the capability of a system to prevent unauthorised alterations of data by any entity). Non-availability of communication networks or critical infrastructure could substantially impact essential services (for instance, Global positioning systems [GPS]), which could have far-reaching implications for international trade, diplomacy, and security. With four major ports incapacitated, the smooth flow of vital goods across various industries has abruptly stopped. Critical construction materials, timely delivery of cars to dealerships, and numerous other imports are now experiencing substantial delays, especially in the critical period before Christmas.

Operational Disruption and Economic Impact

The attack's impact creates a ripple effect that permeates the economy, resulting in increased costs, operational inefficiencies, and uncertainty about the future. The consequences are vividly illustrated by the stranding of 30,000 shipping containers in the aftermath of the DP World hack. While there is a challenge in assigning a precise financial value to these stranded containers, speculation has already raised concerns that DP World's operations could ripple through the broader economy and potentially contribute to another interest rate rise in December.

Cyberattacks on the maritime industry have been successfully launched in the past. Although the economic impact of maritime cyberattacks has received relatively little attention, it is severe. For instance, the Maersk attack in 2017 cost the company approximately USD 300 million. On average, shipping companies pay around USD 3.1 million in ransom as a result of maritime cyberattacks.

National Security Concerns

Ports are not just hubs for commerce; they are strategic assets that play a vital role in national security. The breach exposes vulnerabilities in our maritime critical infrastructure. Cyber-attacks can compromise safety systems and port protocols, posing risks of accidents, spills, and safety incidents. Additionally, environmental monitoring systems tracking port activities' ecological impact may face disruptions, leading to lapses in oversight. Nevertheless, a cyber-attack on a port can lead to reputational damage for the port authority and the associated businesses.

Global Implications in Challenging Times and the Unknowns

The timing of this cyber-attack is particularly concerning amid the ongoing global pandemic. The disruption of a key component of Australia's trade infrastructure adds complexity to the global supply chain, already strained by the pandemic and tensions in the South China Sea. Similar cyber threats impacted Japan's largest port, Nagoya, which was forced to halt operations for several days earlier this year after it was hacked by the Russian cybercrime group LockBit in a ransomware attack. Moreover, the DP world hack's impact on stolen data and software threats is still to be assessed.

Anticipating Readiness for Mitigation

The port attack is not just a singular event; it is a reminder that the digital age demands constant innovation in cybersecurity to safeguard the foundations of the economy and national security. The key cyber research domains that would need to be explored are:

  • Human Factors: Research how to develop and deliver effective cyber security training programs for maritime personnel, such as developing and delivering training modules tailored to maritime professionals' specific needs.
  • Policies and Regulations: Current national and international laws are structurally inadequate to regulate maritime cyberspace. Research is required to develop common cybersecurity standards and best practices, such as the International Maritime Organization's (IMO) Cybersecurity Code.
  • Technological Enhancement: There is a need for cutting-edge Vulnerability Assessment and Mitigation, Intrusion Detection and Prevention Systems, Secure Communication Protocols, IoT Security, Threat Intelligence and Sharing, Behavioural Analytics, Blockchain Secure Transactions, and Digital Forensics in maritime operations.
  • Supply Chain Security: Analyse vulnerabilities within the maritime supply chain, including third-party suppliers, and develop strategies to ensure the integrity and security of components, software, and data. Similarly, there is a lack of research on logistics and forensics; there is a limited understanding of how cybersecurity risks and incidents can impact the maritime supply chain and the ability to recover from attacks.
  • Lack of real-time data: Another challenge in port cybersecurity is the lack of empirical data. A quantitative risk assessment of the DP world hack would allow maritime organisations to make more informed decisions about cybersecurity investments and strategies.

Nevertheless, cyber-attacks on Australia's ports, exemplified by the DP World incident, reveal vulnerabilities in maritime cybersecurity with widespread consequences for supply chains, economies, and national security. This underscores the urgent need for robust cybersecurity measures to protect critical infrastructure and ensure operational resilience. Mitigating future cyber threats demands a comprehensive approach, including human factors, policy enhancements, and technological advancements.


Shah Khalid Khan is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Cyber Security Research and Innovation, RMIT.
X: @Shahkhalid_k

Professor Matthew Warren is the Director Centre for Cyber Security Research and Innovation
X: @matt_warren

28 November 2023


28 November 2023


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RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.