The war between anti-whaling outfit Sea Shepherd and Japanese whalers isn’t just occuring on the high seas, it’s also in cyberspace, with hackers believed to have attacked the environmental vigilante's websites as whalers try to block radio communications between its ships.
The organisation has fought a protracted and public battle with whaling vessels in the Artic and Antarctic for 20 years. It refutes Japan’s claim that the slaughter of whales was for scientific research, and accuses the nation of breaking an international moratorium on whaling.
And as the activists rebuild the Brigitte Bardot damaged in their current Southern Ocean campaign, they will keep close eye on communications.
“Security is crucial for us,” said Doug O’Neil, who looks after ships IT and communications for Sea Shepherd. “We need to make sure our communications are secure.”
But it wasn’t always smooth sailing. When O’Neil joined the organisation in 2009, he received a call from a crew member who was seeking a techie to renovate IT systems on the flagship vessel The Steve Irwin.
He travelled the short distance to Hobart and found insecure and malfunctioning communications systems. Cameras weren’t working, cables were severed, and the wireless network was unprotected.
In 2008 its website was hacked and defaced. The organisation’s founder, Paul Watson, suspected the attacks were linked to Japan and said he and other members had been attacked over social networks.
O’Neil has since outfitted the Steve Irwin with military-grade encryption for satellite and radio communication systems and with a focus on security, has installed newer radars, Power over Ethernet cameras, network hubs and radio and tracking systems between ships and small boats, and secure wireless between ships to allow a private network at sea.
He was also alert to insider threats and had encypted all laptops that contained senstive data with True Crypt to prevent against hacking attempts from within Sea Shepherd's network.
Sea Shepherd’s other ships received an IT makeover in 2010 when O’Neil travelled to the Mediterranean during Operation Blue Rage, a campaign to fight illegal fishing of bluefin tuna.
The organisation used a mix of high and low-tech security: Encrypted communications between its ships was run over Ubiquiti Bullets, while emails are sent through free and open source ThunderBird and encrypted with GnuPG.
O’Neil oversees mitigating security leaks by screening all communications from the vessel over its 512kbps VSAT link and cruising online forums.
While it is unknown if the whalers had tried to hack its communications systems, they reguarly attempt to locate the radio frequency it uses to talk between ships.
When it is discovered, rather than listen in, the whalers practise 'keying' by holding down a button to generate a loud tone over the frequency, preventing the ships from communicating.
O’Neil, who also works at the Wilderness Society and battles logging in Tasmania’s Styx Valley, will join the Southern Ocean campaign next month.
He might also get a chance to tinker with the Sea Shepherd’s unmanned drone surveillance aircraft, dubbed the Osprey.
The hand-launched craft already succesfully found the whaling factory ship the Nisshin Maru.