Developments and Advancements in Port Security: Keeping America’s Seaports Safe

In recent years, as cyber attacks have become nearly commonplace around the world, and as terrorist acts against vulnerable targets still occur, seaports across North America, both large and small, have instituted new security solutions to prevent physical and virtual security threats.

What are some of the current security gaps, and what are solutions that are being implemented? Port officials and stakeholders recently gave Intermodal Insights answers to these questions and more.

Two critical gaps that must constantly be addressed within the port environment are waterside security and access to accurate and timely intelligence, according to David Espie, director of security for the Maryland Port Administration, which includes the Port of Baltimore.

"Because ships must have unobstructed terminal access and mooring capability, the waterside perimeter abutting landside remains an open target for improvised explosive device launches and unequivocal access to landside by unauthorized persons," he said. "In regards to intelligence, such data and information are being collected by local, state and federal entities. The challenge therein is to ensure coordination between the collectors of said information and an appropriate methodology to disseminate to necessary parties."

At the Port of Long Beach, the port’s security gaps are also its strengths, according to Executive Director Mario Cordero.

"Physically, it’s a wide-open area with many different companies and agencies. But the strength comes from the ability of those many different companies and individuals to work together to enhance security and business continuity," he said. "That’s the port’s role, to find ways and technologies for the different entities in the port to better collaborate and prepare."

If security gaps go unaddressed, it could lead to devastating effects, port officials say.

"The potential impacts of waterside criminal and/or terrorist activity and inadequate or ineffective intelligence strategies could be devastating to human life and abruptly stagnate the nation’s economy," Espie said.

"Clearly the port complex is an important cog in the national economy, so any disruption could affect jobs and economic output. That’s why we take our security posture so seriously, because we know the stakes are high and that it’s our responsibility to organize the best possible defenses," Cordero added.

Cyber Attack Mitigation

What are some of the primary methods that port terminals have at their disposal to prevent or mitigate malware incidents, such as ransomware attacks?

The Port of Long Beach, Cordero said, trains workers to become "human firewalls" and has also adopted practices that can help prevent cyber incidents from starting.

"While we’re always working on the technical side to improve our cyber defenses, we require quarterly training for our staff members to stay abreast of the ways they too can help protect the port," he elaborated.

"Physically, it's a wide-open area with many different companies and agencies. But the strength comes from the ability of those many different companies and individuals to work together to enhance security and business continuity."
Mario Cordero
Port of Long Beach

At the adjoining Port of Los Angeles, the nation’s first port Cyber Security Operations Center was established in 2014. The facility is operated by a dedicated cyber security team and acts as a centralized location to proactively monitor network traffic to prevent and detect cyber incidents under port control.

In 2019, the port convened a maritime stakeholder group, including shipping lines, marine terminal operators, railroad companies, labor and representatives from the trucking industry to discuss closer collaboration in order to address cyber security threats.

Currently, according to Port of Los Angeles Spokesman Phillip Sanfield, the port is taking the lead on the first cross-sector Cyber Resilience Center, which will be a collaborative effort to share cyber threat information across a multitude of companies within the port complex. This would help companies prepare against cyber risks that could impact the cargo supply chain ecosystem.

"We will work with stakeholders to shape the effort and bring the Center online in 2021 to serve as a neighborhood ‘cyberhood watch’ to protect data flowing through our port community," Sanfield said.

"Liaisons with vital port partners such as the U.S. Coast Guard through participation with the Area Maritime Security Committee and membership within the Baltimore Port Alliance have proven extremely fruitful."
David Espie
Maryland Port Administration

At the Maryland Port Administration, Espie said that malware and/or ransomware attacks are addressed by two means: first, "cyber education" is provided to all employees on a monthly basis, where cyber security issues are discussed. Second, the security of the operating mainframe is constantly assessed and reviewed for any firewall deficiencies.

Key Stakeholders

Port of Oakland Port Facilities Security Officer Troy Hosmer said that everyone who has a regulatory, operational or business connection to the port is a key stakeholder, with one significant partner being the U.S. Coast Guard’s Captain of the Port, who has the operational and regulatory oversight for maritime-critical infrastructure. Another critical entity is Customs and Border Protection, which provides screening of cargo that transits through the port.

"There are several mechanisms for maritime stakeholder engagement," he said. "Communication among peers and across all stakeholders is critical."

Key stakeholders at the Port of Long Beach, Cordero said, are all of the security and business continuity agencies involved at the complex. As a port authority, he said, Long Beach’s role is to facilitate security enhancements that assist our partner agencies and industries in becoming more secure and more vigilant.

"We are accustomed to working in a multi-layered, multi-jurisdictional security environment, from Coast Guard and Customs & Border Protection to Harbor Patrol and the Long Beach Police," he said.

"Other key stakeholders are of course the businesses that operate at the port, and we’re fortunate to have a close working relationship with our industry partners."

Espie said that key stakeholders that need to be engaged at the Port of Baltimore are the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and its umbrella agencies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, other members of the U.S. Intelligence Community and vital local and state partners.

"Our federal partners provide clarity of regulatory and policy implementation and oversight, nationwide port security requirements and standards, intelligence and port security grant projects funding," he said. "Local and state agencies provide guidance regarding laws and policies from a state perspective, matching security project funding, intelligence and local resources and support."

The Transportation Security Administration also has a small, yet important role in port security: it oversees the issuing of the Transportation Worker Identification Credential, which is required by the Maritime Transportation Security Act for workers who need access to secure areas of the nation’s maritime facilities and vessels.

"A good example would be truck drivers who pick up and drop off items at a port facility. TSA conducts a security threat assessment—background check—to determine a person’s eligibility and issues the credential," TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein explained. "U.S. citizens and immigrants in certain immigration categories may apply for the credential. Most mariners licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard also require a credential."

Preventative Measures

Espie also remarked that improvements incorporated at the Port of Baltimore to address both waterside and landside security include a continual assessment and evaluation of closed-circuit television capabilities and terminal access control methodologies.

"Liaisons with vital port partners such as the U.S. Coast Guard through participation with the Area Maritime Security Committee and membership within the Baltimore Port Alliance have proven extremely fruitful."

"In regards to intelligence, participation within the U.S. Coast Guard’s Intelligence Subcommittee, the U. S. Attorney’s Anti-Terrorism Advisory Committee and the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center’s Critical Infrastructure Committee has proven to provide excellent sources of up-to-date and relevant intelligence," he added. Espie also said that port security should go even further than the measures many ports currently take.

"To upgrade port security, it should be mandated that all port security directors hold a secret level security clearance awarded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security," he remarked. "This clearance would provide access to additional, more in-depth and specific maritime-related threat intelligence."

Other than additional manpower and new technology, one of the most important measures that can be taken to upgrade port security is having the proper mindset.

"Fortunately, people understand that port security is important, and they are well aware of the need to stay focused on the business at hand," Cordero said. "Other than additional resources, additional measures are to continue to avoid becoming complacent when it comes to security."

"Our efforts to protect these ports are working," he said, "but the job is never done."

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