Technology 3 min read

Black Hats are Even Hacking Ships in the Open Seas

Dino Osmic |

Dino Osmic |

Just because ships are far off coast doesn’t mean they’re out of reach for cyber attackers. Recent research shows that VSAT systems actually make ships vulnerable to hackers.

VSAT (Very-Small-Aperture Terminal) was developed by the U.S. Navy in the 1980s, and then was later expanded to civilian industry.

VSAT systems that connect ships are vulnerable to hack attacks. Click To Tweet

VSAT technology is versatile and convenient. However, it is far from hack-proof. This is according to recent discoveries by a French security expert.

Internet and Telecommunication Connectivity in Remote Areas

VSAT enables telecommunications and Internet connection in remote areas by a system based on the connection of the main resource (the hub) and a network of remote points (VSAT stations).

The hub (the earth station) connects the whole network, by ensuring data transmission and reception between remote stations scattered over large areas.

This technology is available to individuals and businesses. Big companies build their own VSAT infrastructure or lease it, to set up a global intranet on several locations around the world without having to deal with any telecom operator.

And because moving ships in the middle of seas are as remote as they can get, VSAT technology is used for various applications such as internet connection, telephone communications, video broadcasting and other forms of data transmission.

Digital Pirates Hacking Ships

Shodan is a search engine that is self-proclaimed as the world’s first search engine for connected objects.

Technically, because ships in high seas (via VSAT) are connected objects, Shodan thought up a new service, called Ship Tracker, which is a map that shows the location of hundreds of vessels in real-time.

A French security researcher, going by the nickname x0rz, showed that hackers could easily gain access to shipboard systems via the public internet.

x0rz used Shodan’s map to find vessels located in many areas around the world, with VSAT systems, then, entered default credentials available on the Internet to access those systems.

In a series of Tweets, x0rz said that maritime VSAT (and even those used onboard aircraft) can be used by hackers as entry point using faulty configuration in satellite antenna systems.

It’s not “how” exactly hackers gain that access, because security experts are working on that now as we speak, but “what” they can do once onboard.

If a cyber criminal gains access to VSAT system, he can do a lot of damage, according to x0rz who claims that “no ships were harmed during [his] experiments.”

For example, hackers can get access to call history of the ship’s VSAT phone, they can change the system settings by modifying the configuration of the firmware or even upload a new firmware.

Consequently, hackers can digitally hijack the ship, jamming communications or perhaps sending fake orders without leaving the comfort of their lair.

How long will it take to develop sufficient protection for VSAT systems?

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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