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Cyber-attack at a major port could cost $1 billion per day

Randy Parsons

At a time when the nation’s infrastructure faces a growing threat from cyber-attacks, maritime and homeland security officials say they are making significant progress in protecting the nation’s ports, which handle more than 2 billion metric tons of cargo annually and are critical to the global economy.

“It’s finally picking up speed,” said Randy Parsons, director of security at the Port of Long Beach, during the Port Security Operations Conference & Expo held Nov. 19-21 at the Hilton Long Beach & Executive Meeting Center. “A lot of time and effort have been put into this by the private sector, as well as the government agencies -- the FBI in particular and the U.S. Secret Service. I’ve seen a major shift in just the last 12 months.”

Parsons said cyber-attacks pose a growing threat to the nation’s infrastructure, including its ports.

“All we have to look at is the 6 o’clock news about every night to see some damage hackers have done around the country,” Parsons observed. “I think we’ve seen plenty of evidence that the capability exists and that puts a challenge on all the partners at the port to assess the protections we have, identify our gaps and then come up with mitigation strategies.”

Doug Albrecht, director of information management at the Port of Long Beach, said the port blocks about 9 million attacks monthly on its network. But it only takes one successful intrusion to potentially do damage, he said.

“There is an annual hackers’ convention in Las Vegas called DEF CON to break into real companies and real networks,” Albrecht said. “The best tool they could use is the telephone. They can profile you from LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook and when they call you and ask you the question about your bank account or password, they know a lot of information about you and you can be easily tricked.”

To combat this threat, port officials teach workers how to recognize these and other methods hackers use to break into the highly-secure networks of ports and other critical infrastructure in the nation.

A lot is at stake. A cyber-attack that successfully shuts down the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach would cause $1 billion a day in losses to the national economy, Parsons said.

“The cyber risk has not been adequately addressed in the maritime security model,” said Michael O’Brien, the port facilities officer at the Port of Oakland. “That needs to be addressed. I think there is some room to grow with the cyber-security threat and become more systematic about it.”