The Devil’s in the Cloud, Part II: New Year’s Day, 2023

You can read the first part of this series here

Bow of the CSCl ship Jupiter in Rotterdam, CC 3 sharealike, courtesy of Alma Mulalic & Yann Fauché and Wikimedia CommonsAs the sun set on New Year’s Eve, 2022, a dozen anonymous container ships were approaching major ports in the United States and Europe.  Like many carriers nearing the end of their useful life, their histories were mongrel in nature; originally owned by major shipping magnates in Greece, they had passed through multiple hands and were now flagged in Senegal, and chartered by a concern in Amsterdam. Three years ago each had been subchartered by one of several much smaller companies with offices in many out of the way places. 

The terms of each charter contract made the company responsible for the upkeep of the ships it had leased, and in due course over the first year of the engagements each ship had undergone repairs in small ship yards in the Indian Ocean and in Southeast Asia before returning to ply its trade in the various shipping lanes of the world.

Over the two years that followed, the ships loaded and unloaded tens of thousands of anonymous containers. Those containers, one might expect, would have contained anything a container could hold – phonebooks from printers in Calcutta destined for telecommunications carriers in France; timber transshipped at the mouth of the Amazon for furniture companies in South Carolina; consumer electronics from Taiwan bound for Southampton; plywood shipped from Kyoto to Seattle made from trees shipped from Seattle to Kyoto. All of the infinitely varied stuff of global commerce that passes from point A to point B before being transferred to trucks and trains for forwarding to points C and D.

Most of the time, the ships loaded and unloaded in ports in Africa, India, Indonesia,  Bangladesh and other parts of the Indian Ocean and South Pacific.  But occasionally they also journeyed to England, France and Italy, and to the Port of New Jersey, to Los Angeles and to other U.S. destinations.

Thus it was that there was nothing to remark upon when the members of the aging fleet neared their current destinations:  some were closing on Seattle, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Newport News and Boston.  One ship had steamed up the St. Laurence Seaway, through the lakes and locks and onto the broad waters of Lake Superior. Others were nearing ports in the English Channel, the Baltic, and the Mediterranean. The papers of each ship were in order, and pilots were preparing to meet them, expecting nothing but business as usual.

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To the practiced eyes of the pilots, each ship would be different, although all were of approximately the same tonnage and age. But each pilot would swiftly note two aspects of each ship that would stand out. The first was that each hull had been modified to install large doors in its bow, ostensibly to allow roll on/roll off loading of cargo. That would be curious, because each ship had also been configured to carry containers, which would most often be loaded from above.  The second aspect was that each ship was riding unusually high, showing more bottom paint and Plimsol lines then one would assume for a ship carrying a profitable cargo of well-stuffed containers.

In the faint light of the pre-dawn hour, none of these similarities would be evident. Nor would the ships stand out in the other outer harbors the fleet was approaching, each of which was still bathed in darkness.  Certainly no one would notice as the doors in the bows of the ships swung open, because all lights had been extinguished inside. The only indication that something unusual was afoot would be the sound of the drones – hundreds of drones with muffled engines – that emerged one at a time from each ship before pursuing its unerring course towards its target, flying only a few hundred feet above the water, and then the land.

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Some of those targets were only a few score miles away, while others were many times more distant. It hardly mattered, though, because the United States and Europe were at peace. In the modern world, only the United States, with its many carrier fleets, could project real military muscle against distant enemies. Why, then, would any First World nation need the types of coastal or anti-aircraft defenses that were the order of the day before the nuclear age? These fortifications had long ago been abandoned and fallen into ruin.

Even after the first drones began striking their targets, there was great confusion, because instead of firing easily-seen missiles, the drones, like the German V-1 “buzz bombs” of the Second World War dove to the attack. The small night time staffs working at the targets had no way of knowing what was striking them – surreptitiously planted bombs? Truck bombs? Artillery fire?  Missiles? And from where??

As realization spread that the nations were under attack, their governments and militaries struggled to understand what had happened, and to react. But the drones had already reached their destinations. Off shore, still under cover of darkness, the crews of the container ships sped off in small, fast boats.  Soon they would rendezvous far off shore with the submarines that awaited them, while the container ships settled deeper into the water, their seacocks open and sea water flooding their holds.

Needless to say, the countries that had been struck launched no counterattacks, because there was no way to know who to attack without weeks of investigative work in any of the ports that the ships had visited in the years preceding; the drones could have been loaded in any of those ports, and the tangle of ownership of the companies that had leased the ships led through seemingly endless layers of holding companies.

Indeed, the civil and military leaders of the target countries never did truly understand what had hit them. To do so would require sophisticated networks to gather and analyze data of all kinds.

And that was now impossible.  Because, of course, the targets were the data farms.

Tomorrow:  Life in the new Dark Ages     

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Comments (2)

  1. Sometimes, I pass a fortress next to the rail roads that hosts backup computers for important services. The building is made to withstand a direct hit plane crash, and maybe a bomb or two. Understandingly, they did not advertice all the details.


    Just to say that people are indeed thinking about such things. The same as they did with our power grids and water supplies.


    To bring that message again to our attention, the Netherlands are the target of massive DDOS attacks against banks, online payment systems and our national digital identification service (needed for public services). None of these have been brought down yet.


    Which again shows that modern democracies are not as weak and gullible as many make them out.

  2. Winter,


    Unfortunately, I think the data center that you’re walking by is the exception rather than the rule. At least, that would certainly be the case in the U.S.  The designation and mandatory protection of cyber "critical infrastructure" is just beginning and (again, speaking for the U.S.) failed to pass in Congress last year.  A new Obama Executive Order is trying to fill the gaps – but only for cyber security.  There’s not a word on physical security.


    What you do see is a few giant companies, like Amazon, getting more and more of the Cloud business, and building enormous data farms in areas like Washington State, where hydro-electric power is currently very cheap.  Those installations are not hardened in any way at all.


      –  Andy

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