Many ports are looking to technology upgrades to better support port operations.  Dockworkers and some unions are fighting steps to further automate and possibly eliminate jobs.  This tension is likely to cause higher concerns of insider threats in port operations.  

Port Technology Innovation

The “Bluetech Accelerator – Ports & Shipping 4.0” is a Portuguese program being led by Portugal’s Minister of the Sea and is designed to make the country a world leader in smart technology innovation.  This program is an initiative aimed at accelerating the creation of smart technology start-ups in Portugal’s shipping and ports sectors.  Bluetech Accelerator’s stakeholders include shipping groups Portline Group and ETE Group, the Ports of Sines and Leixoes and digital and robotics companies Inmarsat and Tekever to identify and finance start-ups in the smart technology and shipping industry.[1]  The program’s objective is to create a network of Port Tech Clusters, platforms for accelerating the technological and business innovation of sustainable blue port-based businesses.  Their port strategy focuses on using the accelerator to drive the creation of innovative solutions taking into account key drivers of change in the port business model and shipping, such as artificial intelligence, low carbon economy, energy efficiency, autonomous ships, markets online for shipping, integration processes based on technology blockchain, cyber security, automation and robot control of maritime and port operations.

Robots and Cobots

In addition to Portugal’s drive for future technology innovation, many ports are already employing some levels of automation.  Industrial robots continue to be used for linear and repetitive tasks such as moving and assembling components.  But these machines are heavy and can pose additional risks to human workers, when compared with their lighter cobot counterparts. 

What are cobots?  Collaborative robots, or cobots, were developed as a need to improve the safety of traditional automated machinery working alongside human beings. Cobots offer greater agility and responsiveness than industrial robots, which makes them well-placed to meet the changing needs of the manufacturing process.  Cobots have sophisticated force-torque sensors that allow them to sense human presence and be programmed to power off instantly if a worker gets too close.[2]  Cobots will definitely change the face of maritime ports.

In October 2018, the International Longshoreman’s Association, a very strong maritime union in the US, vowed to “fight” future automation in the ports.  “Automation eliminates jobs,” is their mantra and robots do not pay union dues.  In  September 2018, ILA agreed upon a contract for their East and Gulf Coast workers, specifically addressed technology and automation.  The contract agreed to replace technology and automation section wording with new language: “no fully automated terminals or equipment (machinery or equipment that is devoid of human interaction), and no semi-automated equipment will be implemented until both parties agree.” 

Figure 1. Courtesy of Bleeping Computer


This raises a serious question of insider threats.  All international port workers (and some with unions) have not been immune to slowdowns, strikes and physical violence in their negotiations with port management.  Disruptions to port networks is certainly not out of the question.  Chile just ended a 30-day dockworker strike that lead to heavy police repression, including a standoff that significantly damaged their union building.   Many striking workers faced threats or violence from unknown thugs.[3] 

In a past port strike in the Port of LA/Long Beach saw California citrus growers lose $500 million USD in just 10 days because containers sat idle in the port.  Last year, the Ports of Barcelona, San Diego and Long Beach and the shippers COSCO and Maersk were all hit with ransomware (notPetya).  With port facilities and shippers now closing the barn door on cyber security issues, insider threats awareness becomes even more significant. 

As ports become more and more automated, the threat of job loss is very real.  All this  new automation runs on cyber networks, which can be defeated from the inside by a disgruntled port worker(s).  Shutting down ports has serious international commerce implications.  Most negative commerce effects are financial, yet some are actual national security threats.  How port managements and workers walk this tight rope of lightning speed technology innovation and job retention, remains unclear.  Vigilance of now higher insider threats to port operations, is always a concern.  Wapack Labs can assist with the identification of insider threats through our Virtual Trust Officer (vTO) Program.     

About Wapack Labs

Wapack Labs, located in New Boston, NH, is a Cyber Threat Analysis and Intelligence organization supporting the Red Sky Alliance, the FS-ISAC, and individual corporations.  For questions or comments regarding this report, please contact the lab directly by at 1-844-492-7225, or




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