A quick look at business headlines shows that cyberthreats are one of the top challenges confronting American companies. From ransomware to customer-data leaks and intellectual property theft, hackers seem to be lurking around every corner, and they’re not sparing logistics operators.
Big names that have reportedly fended off cyberattacks in the past year include the Seattle-based freight forwarder Expeditors, German shipping group Hapag-Lloyd, Indian container handling facility the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Container Terminal (JNPCT), and German customs broker Hellmann Worldwide Logistics. The rise in cybercrime even led the White House this spring to advise companies to boost their defenses against cyberthreats and prompted the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency to warn that such attacks could threaten critical supply chain operations in particular.
But amid the push to ward off hackers, there’s one sector that is seldom mentioned: the humble warehouse. That omission is partly a product of outdated thinking. For decades, most warehouses were simply large buildings filled to the rafters with inventory—and with very few computers to attack. But that all changed with the advent of warehouse automation. Today’s distribution center is more likely to be a humming hive of robots and other automated equipment, all connected wirelessly to warehouse management systems (WMS) and other software that could potentially be exploited by hackers.
Given these vulnerabilities, it’s no surprise that developers of automated logistics equipment are also adding “armor” to protect their technology from these threats. But adding armor is just the half of it. There are also things warehouse leaders can do to protect their data, these developers say. And the protective measures don’t have to be complicated, they add, noting that simply following some basic security principles can reduce an operation’s exposure to cyberattacks and help safeguard its customers’ data.
The first wall of defense for warehouse automation systems such as autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) is having them operate within the building’s own intranet, says Nathan Cao, head of technical services for Geek +, a developer of warehouse robots and artificial intelligence (AI) products.
Although the types of devices being connected to these intranets have evolved over time, companies have successfully protected their intranets for years through industry-standard approaches such as ISO/IEC 27001, Cao says. That standard offers a set of information security management protocols defined by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to protect assets such as financial information, intellectual property, employee details, and information entrusted to them by third parties.
Those same industry standards are also key to protecting communications outside the building, like the data exchanged between automated equipment and various cloud platforms, says Akash Gupta, CTO and co-founder of GreyOrange Pte Ltd., another developer of AMRs and order fulfillment optimization products.
In GreyOrange’s case, the company’s cloud-based GreyMatter fulfillment optimization software exchanges data with each client’s own cloud-based platforms, such as an enterprise resource planning (ERP) or order management system. That connection happens through application programming interfaces (APIs) that are secured with industry-standard processes, Gupta says.
The GreyMatter system then hands down instructions to individual robots in the warehouses, but it sends them only relevant data like bin locations and picking sequences, instead of sensitive data such as customer names, addresses, or financial information.
6 River Systems, another provider of AMRs and fulfillment software, takes a similar approach with its “Chuck” model robots, which work collaboratively with human order pickers to optimize fulfillment operations. Those robots are designed to strictly limit the information they can exchange, the company says.
“We don’t want customer information at 6 River Systems; we only want the data to empower Chuck to path-plan, pick an item, and confirm,” says Gillan Hawkes, 6 River’s vice president of product and analytics. “It’s just metadata, like weight, dimension, and shelf location, not end-user information like a delivery address.”
To obtain that information, the 6 River robots communicate with cloud-based servers through the same hypertext transfer protocol secure (https) system that many people use for secure communication over computer networks while browsing the internet. They further protect their communication outside the building by using APIs with “encrypted tunnels,” the company says.
Deploying these multiple layers of cyberdefenses is critical, according to Berkshire Grey, another developer of robotic order fulfillment solutions. The company says that relying on a customer’s corporate intranet alone is no guarantee of overall security, since intruders typically attempt to “punch holes” in these security systems through the very mechanisms—wireless networks and cloud connections—that enable warehouse robots to do their jobs.
For that reason, BerkshireGrey follows the same approach used by its fellow vendors, choosing to exchange only minimal, non-sensitive information with cloud platforms, says Pras Velagapudi, the company’s director of engineering. And it follows a redundant approach to security by building in multiple layers of protection.
“The best defense is one that puts up a fight even if [only a single] layer is compromised,” Velagapudi says. “We employ a multilayer approach to security: restrict information, restrict access, and encrypt data. This ensures that it is not only difficult to compromise the system, but also that if a component gets compromised, it is difficult to use that to get to sensitive information or exploit any other part of the system.”
The task of cyberdefense has never been more important than it is today, as the logistics sector adds new technology to every operation and as global unrest triggers an increase in attacks. A recent report by the cybersecurity service provider Trellix found an increase in cyber activity targeting critical infrastructure sectors during the fourth quarter of 2021, with 27% of those threats targeting transportation and shipping companies.
But suppliers of automated warehouse equipment say they are up to the challenge, applying both information technology (IT) industry standards and specific logistics-focused strategies to fend off attacks and keep fulfillment operations rolling.