The 1973 science fiction movie Westworld featured a high-tech, highly realistic adult amusement park where guests could live out their fantasies about living in the Old West, including bar fights and gun duels with humanoid robots programmed to allow the guests to always prevail. Everything goes well until an electronic virus starts propagating through the system, causing the robots and other electronics to malfunction. By the end of the movie, robots are shooting the guests, until only one guest (Richard Benjamin) survives a final attack by the Gunslinger (Yul Brenner). The advertising slogan for the Westworld theme park was “Have we got a vacation for you!”
A significant but under-appreciated risk to the maritime sector is its increased reliance on multiple complex electronic systems with minimal redundancy, little testing and unproved interoperability. A prime example is the Sept. 21, 1997, incident on the Aegis cruiser USS Yorktown (CG 48). At the time, it was one of the most sophisticated warships in the U.S. Navy, utilizing a new Smart Ship program involving extensive computerization and an integrated control center.
The onboard computers were all tied together into one network. On that date, while the cruiser was steaming alone about 100 miles off Cape Charles, Va., a crewmember was down below in the engineering spaces ordering supplies when he mistakenly entered a zero as the divisor in a mathematical equation. The computer crashed, causing the entire network to crash. Yorktown totally shut down. Neither the engines nor the radios worked. Only after more than two hours of repairs was the captain able to send a classified message to headquarters notifying them of the situation. The Navy’s Smart Ship program has been extensively revised.
We now know that GPS, AIS, ECDIS and other electronic systems on board commercial vessels are subject to program and design flaws, accidental and intentional interference, hacking and spoofing. Carriage and use of these electronic systems is increasingly mandated. The question is, Have we moved too far too fast? Perhaps the slogan at IMO should be “Have we got a ship for you!”
Dennis L. Bryant is Principal of Bryant’s Maritime Consulting.