back to article Container ship loading plans are 'easily hackable'

Security researchers have warned that it might be possible to destabilise a container ship by manipulating the vessel stowage plan or "Bay Plan". The issue stems from the absence of security in BAPLIE EDIFACT, a messaging system used to create ship loading and container stowage plans – for example which locations are occupied …

  1. GrumpyOldBloke

    There are new SOLAS weight in motion standards for containerised cargo requiring verified weights. In modern ports the container weight is checked by the straddle and the crane. The ships know how heavy they are and their trim. If all else fails, water lapping over the gunnels may alert the stevedores or the crew that something is amiss.

    1. Norman Nescio Silver badge

      Re: Overload

      If all else fails, water lapping over the gunnels may alert the stevedores or the crew that something is amiss.

      I'd hope someone might notice if the water went above the Plimsoll line before it reached the gunwales.

      ...but the issue here is not necessarily overloading, as such, but distributing the load to affect the dynamic stability of the ship, which is more subtle, and wouldn't show up via the Plimsoll line. It's like loading a car - you put the heavy stuff as low as possible, and the light stuff at the top - but in a ship you also have to avoid putting too much mass away from the centre-line, or too far forward or sternwards.

      Some disaster porn of the consequences of container weight misdeclaration here: Consequences of container weight misdeclaration – a pictorial:

      An interesting blow-by-blow account of salvaging a stranded container ship: M/V Rena (Each blog entry has pictures)

      And parametric rolling - why load distribution is important - includes a nice picture of the Bay Chay Bridge with a few containers missing.

      1. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken
        Pint

        Re: Overload

        Thanks for the links!

        1. Marketing Hack Silver badge
          Go

          Re: Overload

          Soon to appear as an introduction metaphor in an El Reg story about containerized application problems.

          https://i2.wp.com/shippingandfreightresource.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/abc.png?ssl=1

      2. LesC
        Go

        Re: Overload

        Brit insurance outfit the P&I Club have a few videos of managing containers (TEU not Kuberdocker) up on Youpewdepie the one linked has a rather entertaining start at what suspiciously looks like Alton Towers from a while back. There are the full length versions out there too. The title name's not that bad either - or the rollercoaster scenes - container devs please note ;)

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6zUT55bnJ8&t=293s

    2. cybergibbons

      Eh?

      SOLAS VGM pretty much says that you can't estimate weight anymore. It doesn't stipulate using load cells on cranes, and that hasn't been what is implemented in most ports.

  2. Anonymous South African Coward Silver badge

    What with the uncovering of vulnerabilities all over the place in IT, I have the uneasy feeling that IT is being steered towards some sort of a climax...

    ...or I may be wrong.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      IT is being steered towards some sort of a climax...

      Yep, we should stop it all now, turn it all off, and go back to using pencils, paper and human experience and knowledge.

    2. Mage Silver badge
      Alert

      some sort of a climax

      Only when most stuff is "on the cloud" and it is down to 4 to 6 major vendors applying the same patches.

      Think 19th potato famines in terms of danger of monoculture (not just 1842 Ireland).

      Also what could possibly go wrong with everyone outsourcing everything?

      1. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

        Re: some sort of a climax / monoculture / outsourcing

        One EMP blast over, say, Mumbai and a serious chunk of US and EU companies is in real trouble, including the military-industrial complex.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: some sort of a climax / monoculture / outsourcing

          Yes,at some stage the climax will be that there are not enough people that know how the real world works, and cloud based, outsourced, arms-length providers full of qualified but inexperienced PFY's will be running your businesses. None of them will know what the others are doing, and things will go wrong. IIRC an Arianne rocket was aborted due to software between engine and navigation using different units - I am sure both pieces of software were perfect in testing...

          It is not easy to train people in real life and experience, I've found.

          In this instance, at least, its only containers full of pollutants falling into the sea...

          1. Mage Silver badge

            Re: some sort of a climax / monoculture / outsourcing

            "qualified but inexperienced PFY's will be running your businesses. "

            Typo?

            ruining your businesses

        2. This post has been deleted by its author

        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: some sort of a climax / monoculture / outsourcing

          Hey Kim,

          You're pointing in the wrong direction.

        4. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: some sort of a climax / monoculture / outsourcing

          Kansas City would be far, far worse. Ask any aged network engineer why.

    3. caffeine addict Silver badge

      What with the uncovering of vulnerabilities all over the place in IT, I have the uneasy feeling that IT is being steered towards some sort of a climax...

      I'm looking forward to the followup puns once Sarsons' gets hacked...

  3. Paul Cooper

    This report (https://www.gov.uk/maib-reports/listing-flooding-and-grounding-of-vehicle-carrier-hoegh-osaka) shows the causes of the grounding of a car and truck carrier. The grounding was caused by a combination of a) inaccurate recording of the weight of vehicles loaded and b) failure of the system for measuring the contents of tanks, resulting in the officers relying on adding and subtracting weight as the contents changed. The latter is subject to errors well-understood by most here and resulted in the figures being used bearing little relationship to reality.

    Basically, how could a hacker cause more problems than arise without malice anyway?

  4. malle-herbert Silver badge
    Joke

    A4...BOOM!...B4...BOOM!....C4....BOOM!....

    You sunk my battleship !

    1. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

      Re: A4...BOOM!...B4...BOOM!....C4....BOOM!....

      C4 is always "BOOM!"

  5. This post has been deleted by its author

  6. Paul Herber Silver badge

    I'd like to find a way to get the word 'rowlocks' into the discussion.

    1. Alister Silver badge
      Pirate

      Container ships don't have rowlocks in their gunwales, me hearty. Shiver me girders.

    2. JimboSmith Silver badge

      AVAST BEHIND!

      (I'm told by a salty sea-dog that you need to shout it because it's a command to someone to stop doing what they're doing behind you. Ooh Matron!)

      1. Alister Silver badge
        Joke

        AVAST BEHIND

        I thought it was a comment on my generous posterior...

        Yew Bastud!

        :)

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The Wire?

    Didn't this come up as a plot piece in the TV series "The Wire" set in Baltimore some years ago ?

  8. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

    Re-routing a container full of iPhones seems more attractive... OTOH, messing with a couple of big cargo ships at a bottleneck (canals, straights) would be pretty disruptive.

  9. Prosthetic Conscience
    Go

    Sinking the ship??

    How about smuggling people guns or drugs undetected, haven't any of you watched the Wire?

  10. Marketing Hack Silver badge
    Boffin

    Would it be possible to destabilize a ship by reducing the cargo during transit?

    Could somebody destabilize a container ship by filling containers with a volatile liquid like isopropyl alcohol, and then opening the barrels via a remote-control so that the contents evaporate and the contain weights change dramatically while the ship is at sea?

    That seems like an awful lot of work to pull off, but you could pack a perfectly legal and fairly common substance into multiple containers and then let nature unload the containers for you while in transit.

    1. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

      Re: Would it be possible to destabilize a ship by reducing the cargo during transit?

      The easier way is to reassign the container weights so the heavier ones one carried high. If the weight distribution is bad enough the ship could easily capsize. Might a great idea of marine insurance fraud (with a few murders thrown in).

    2. Alan J. Wylie

      Re: Would it be possible to destabilize a ship by reducing the cargo during transit?

      ISTR part of the plot of a Neal Stephenson novel - one in the "System of the World" series, involved partially filled flasks of mercury on a galleon causing it to resonate, roll and sink.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So many acronyms

    Store High In Transit

  12. Nimby
    Pirate

    Too much effort.

    Considering the number of human-error accidents and nature-related losses that happen all the time, who needs malicious activity? That's what insurance is for.

    Besides, on the open seas be pirates. Yo ho ho and a cargo container of rum!

    Frankly, I'm surprised that the system works at all. Is it secure? No. But it's the kind of insecurity that doesn't need hackers to exploit, so who cares how hackable it is?

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Too much effort.

      "Frankly, I'm surprised that the system works at all. Is it secure? No. But it's the kind of insecurity that doesn't need hackers to exploit, so who cares how hackable it is?"

      Maybe malicious actors never even thought of this before. Manipulating the system to smuggle or steal is one thing, but maybe no one ever made the leap to attempting to sink ships with it. Until someone publicly shouts from the rooftops that it's possible.

      I do sometimes wonder if publishing info on theoretical threats is a good idea.

  13. Chris Malme
    FAIL

    Missing the point

    While amusing to ponder, the research misses the point somewhat. There is nothing "secure" about the message itself. Security is provided by the method used to send/receive the message. While there are no doubt systems somewhere that still send such data in the clear, all EDI systems I have worked with in recent years use some kind of secure protocol for communications.

    As for that "easily hackable" UNT segment. It was never intended as a precaution against intentional manipulation, but simply as a check-sum against communications problems, back in the days where everything was done via modem, and partial transmission of messages was possible should problems occur.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Missing the point

      Indeed the manifests should be encrypted with the highest level of security possible before being given to the maritime and security agencies of every 3rd wold country that the ships pass near.

      Had an incident here with a chemical fire on a train passing near our small town. Unlike trucks they have no requirement to carry hazmat records and the rail company refused to give any manifest information to the fire service - for reasons of commercial confidentiality. The railroads are exempt from local and state health and safety law.

      In this case an easily hackable public record of what was on the train might have been useful.

  14. teknopaul Bronze badge

    Healf n safety mate, you'll av yer eye out with that software.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Relieved

    that I don't drive ships for a living any more.

    Bloody Metacentric heights, Centre of Gravity and Buoyancy, all calculated by hand, and you then find some bugger cheated the weights and tried to kill you.

    Ah well. Wasn't my fault they swapped the 20' ft box of frozen fish with the 20' box of expensive Ferrari between reefer and deck stows. The car survived the freezing quite well. The same could not be said of the fish...

    Nice video on the parametric rolling.

    Some more stability basics for those who are interested:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metacentric_height (interesting that even on a pretty large ship GM is measured in a few 10s of cms if I remember correctly)

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angle_of_loll (nasty scenario - timber ships are high risk)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Relieved

      Presumably the Angle of Loll is how far you lean back while laughing out loud?

  16. Speltier

    Blockchain

    There. The problem is fixed.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    From my time working at a port

    While EDI messages should be sent over secure methods, as a port operator with a government charter, you try mandating that without losing your license in many parts of the world. Some of our agents are barely computer literate and so we get EDI messages attached to emails; a sort of manual EDI... :/

    We can be reasonably secure for the majors lines, and the local ones can at least narrow it down to a specific sending IP but without encryption, that's also not insurmountable to spoof.

    However, even then, if you could get hold of an inbound manifest*, edit it, and send it to the planners attached to a spoofed email, they'd probably happily upload it into NAVIS** for you.

    * The guys would notice pretty quickly if the stowplan didn't match up with what was coming off the ship. Not that that would matter if you just wanted to cause some chaos at a busy port, and scrambling a few simultanious ships' worth of data would be a decent attempt: port operator is out of pocket for all the bad staging moves and is fined for holding up ships.

    ** ugh

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