Port Operations: Risky Business - Global Trade Magazine
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  October 23rd, 2015 | Written by

Port Operations: Risky Business

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  • Political unrest, crime, and corruption figure in the risk picture that operators consider when executing port calls.
  • “We are seeing a clear trend toward an increasingly critical and more complex global port risk picture.”
  • IT has become integral but systems are not always designed with cyber safety in mind.

The horrific explosions in the Chinese port of Tianjin illustrated just how volatile port operations can be. But safety issues are only one facet of risk in the complex world of shipping ports.

From piracy on the high seas to data thievery in port, players all along the shipping value chain need to be on constant alert for the dangers that nature and human actions can present.

Political unrest, theft, smuggling and corruption all figure in to the risk picture that ship owners, brokers, and cargo owners have to consider when planning and executing port calls.

“The security picture can change quickly at ports,” says an Oslo-based global cruise operator. “We call around the world, and not always at the largest or most modern ports, so we have to be aware of the whole risk picture in order to guarantee our passengers’ safety.”

Another shipowner, a leading global tanker owner operating out of Copenhagen, concurs. “We had an armed robbery just the other day,” he reports. “If we know the risk picture in advance, we can take preventative measures, like putting more guards on watch. If we don’t know beforehand, we are vulnerable.”

“We follow the development of risk in ports closely,” says Hans Tino Hansen, CEO of Risk Intelligence, suppliers of the MaRisk security threat monitoring service. “We are seeing a clear trend toward an increasingly critical and more complex global port risk picture.”

Port operations are often exposed when the stability of a country is compromised. Ports are choke points for transportation of energy, food, and materials, and the normal functioning of a country can depend on safe operations in key ports.

The tanker operator points out that the master is not capable of assessing risk on his own. “We have to call an agent, and they generally give us a copy-paste reply that is of little or no help,” he said. In addition an agent generally has no opportunity to provide a security assessment, including standards at the gate, or the state of the local police.

Tanker operators call on some of the riskiest ports in the business, in West Africa, Indonesia, and South America. “There are some clauses in the contract that allow us to avoid the most dangerous situations, like armed conflict, but we still have to deal with stowaways, theft, and more in many of our ports of call,” said the tanker operator.

As if physical threats were not enough, a new risk has emerged in cyber space. Information technology has become an integral part of port and ship operations, but information and communications systems in the shipping world are not always designed with cyber safety in mind. Hackers can alter or jam the Automatic Identification System (AIS) that tracks ships at sea, and the ISPS code that ensures physical port safety only marginally addresses the threat of cyber attack.

Matt Haworth, a cyber and information assurance specialist with cyber advice service provider Templar Executives believes that cyber security is now one of the most complex threats faced by the maritime industry and its critical infrastructure. “Ports and terminals are under attack from cyber criminals, organized crime and terrorist groups looking to disrupt national infrastructure and hostile governments,” he says.

So how dangerous does it have to get before shipowners just say no? Most shipowners would agree that it depends on the risk profile that owners carry.

It is up to ship and cargo owners to decide how much risk they are willing to take. The one thing they can do is be as informed as possible. No one can guarantee safety, but knowing risk is the key to making the decisions that are right for shipowners, their crew, and their cargo.

“The industry has a pressing need for a single, easily accessible channel for comprehensive and reliable intelligence on risk in ports,” said Hansen. “Providing that solution will be our main priority going forward.”