Cyber Mischief and Cyber Attack

It’s recently been revealed that Nissan’s small electric car, the Leaf, is vulnerable to computer hackers. Not very vulnerable perhaps, but a prankster only needs the VIN number of the car (displayed clearly through the windscreen on most vehicles) to call up your vehicle and monkey with its climate control, using nothing more than a web browser. They can also access information about recent journeys.

Having your heating or air-conditioning switched on while the car is parked up doesn’t sound like much of a problem, but these are electric cars: their range is limited at the best of times, and the last thing you need is somebody running down your battery for laughs.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that a supermarket cashier was cheerfully telling me that his Leaf could be programmed so that it’s nice and warm when his shift finishes. It made me think, wow… maybe these electric cars are beginning to carve out a niche for themselves. Having the vehicle warmed up and ready to go is a nice little gimmick that my humble diesel could never manage.

It’s around a hundred years since cars first acquired circuitry. Before that, you had to make to with hot tube ignition, and later a magneto – both dependent upon enthusiastic work with a starting handle. Then along came the 1912 model Cadillac, with its electric starter. Everything changed once cars had a supply of electric current: in addition to keeping a battery topped up, electricity offered practical lights, a horn, an electric means of ignition and so on, through to electric headrest adjustment and all the bells and whistles of a modern car.

Inevitably, the economics of providing electrical (and later electronic) systems in a car improved. Electronic control systems proved to be simpler, cheaper and more reliable than their mechanical predecessors. Cars acquired systems for emissions control, and anti-lock braking – later mandated by law – and if you’re going to have all that computing power in a vehicle, it’s logical to let it work like a computer. Cars acquired diagnostic sockets that allowed a mechanic to investigate faults (and which locked drivers into paying top dollar for servicing at manufacturer-approved centres, for a time). But then, if you’ve got communications gear such as a cellular antenna and a global positioning system on-board, why not integrate it all? That allows the car manufacturer to ‘mine’ your data, and learn things such as how their vehicle performs, and how customers use it. It’s a bit of an invasion of privacy, but it’s a fabulous way to turn all your customers into unpaid test drivers. We have to assume that drivers’ data is regularly being mined today, at some level of abstraction.

Here at Capacify, we strive to accurately portray a range of business concepts. This is how data mining is done.

Here at Capacify, we strive to portray business concepts in accurate and useful terms. Here, you can see how data mining is performed.

And if you can receive data from cars, maybe it’s a good idea to be able to send data to cars, as well. Updates to the navigation system require such a capability… but it could also be handy to be able to patch a hypothetical fault in your firmware without the usual formal recall for work at an approved service centre (and all the bad press that this entails).

It’s amazing to think that all this capability comes about for free, piggybacked onto other functions that a modern car needs. Computing really has improved to the point where it’s more expensive to leave functionality out. (There’s also the question of designers mistakenly leaving in a ‘back door’ as a result of using off-the-shelf components or code segments that have other applications…)

As Nissan have found out, sooner or later, somebody figures out how to hack your system. In their case, it was security researchers Scott Helme and Troy Hunt. Hunt is said to have informed Nissan of the vulnerability, but after a month with no news of a fix he went public with a demonstration in which a Nissan Leaf in the UK was accessed from Australia.

It doesn’t exactly presage armageddon, but we can expect this kind of thing to become increasingly common as machines get ‘smarter’. Nissan aren’t software developers or security specialists: they just wanted to make a competitive car with some neat features, such as allowing drivers to ensure their car is at a comfortable temperature with a smartphone app… but they messed up. They’re not alone, either: this article reports how a 2015 Jeep Cherokee could be hacked remotely, manipulating the in-car entertainment and windscreen wipers, and even shutting the car down.

VW Beetle cutaway

No word yet on whether my other car is safe from the hackers…

More worrying is the tale of security researcher Chris Roberts, who appears to have hacked into airliners while on board as a passenger. He exploited a weakness of the in-flight entertainment systems to interface with critical systems on aircraft such as the Boeing 737-800, 737-900, 757-200 and Airbus A-320, making fifteen to twenty such incursions from 2011 to 2014. Roberts has been interviewed by the FBI, but hasn’t been charged with a crime. It appears he’s not welcome to fly with United Airlines anymore, though.

Screenshot that appears to show access to aircraft systems

The control system of a jet airliner seems somewhat… retro. [Image: Chris Roberts]

What of the supply chain, and the Internet of increasingly connected things? Lars Jensen, CEO of CyberKeel, found serious vulnerabilities in sixteen out of twenty ocean carriers surveyed. The motive and opportunity exist for theft of data, fraud and perhaps terror attacks.

“No opening is too small,” says Carole Boyle at Strategic Sourceror. Information that would once exist on a physical clipboard is now in cyberspace, and shared widely. Where businesses collaborate, the security is only as good as at its weakest point, while differences of time zone and asynchronous communications may mean that organisations are slow to notice when their security has been breached.

Citing a data breach at US retailer Target, John Mello suggests that the supply network is a particular point of vulnerability for corporations. A supplier’s credentials, normally used in legitimate business-to-business communications, can be used to gain access to much of a network… and the hackers only have to find their way into one supplier’s account to achieve this, while a large corporation will have to audit the security of hundreds of vendors.

computer screen reporting cyber attack

Remember the good old days, when all you had to worry about was the wrath of former employees?

Like Nissan, you probably didn’t think you were in the cybersecurity business… but it turns out that we all are, from now on. Next time you install a free game on your smartphone, you might be wise to ponder if it really is a bargain, or if it contains a piece of malware that will snoop on your SMS messages, and perhaps suppress or spoof a two-step verification attempt from a web-based service that you depend upon.


Infrastructure of a Former Empire

There’s an interesting piece on the BBC News website today about the MV Ilala, a ship that’s been plying the waters of Lake Malawi for 65 years. She’s described as a ‘rusting lifeline’, and the only way of reaching some settlements. This isn’t merely a passenger service, as the ship can carry up to 90 tonnes of cargo as well.

MV Ilala was constructed by Yarrow Shipbuilders, back when describing something as Clydebuilt was a guarantee of quality. No sooner had she been completed than she was broken down into pieces and brought in overland: if the idea of a ship reaching a large African lake in this way makes you think of Humphrey Bogart’s adversary in ‘The African Queen’, you’re not far wrong… although that story is set on a different lake. (There was a brief naval action on Lake Malawi: the first of the First World War… but a single shot decided it.)

The BBC described the Ilala as facing an uncertain future back in 2008. She is a single-bottom type, and therefore not compliant with the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention. (As far as SOLAS is concerned, Lake Malawi is ‘at sea’…) More than seven years on the Ilala is still in service, but showing further signs of long usage.

MV Ilala

On a freshwater lake, time has taken its toll all the same [BBC News]

MV Ilala

MV Ilala, docked and unloading [Photo:]

When maintenance is required some of the Ilala’s duties can be performed by the MV Chilembwe (launched in 2014) although that is a considerably smaller vessel. The MV Mtendere (in service from 1980) used to stand in, but is currently in storage, with plans to break her up. The other grand old lady of Lake Malawi, launched in 1901 and generally acknowledged as the oldest ship still afloat in Africa, is the MV Chauncy Maples, undergoing conversion to a floating medical clinic. The small Tanzanian ferries MV Songea and MV Iringa (each launched 1974) also operate on the lake, but have their own itineraries. Thus, maritime transport on Lake Malawi appears to offer a very fragile lifeline indeed.

In this decaying infrastructure I see parallels with the end of an earlier empire: when the Romans left Britain around 410 AD, they left behind a road network that continued to define the landscape. For well over a thousand years, no better roads were built. We lacked the skills, the political will or perhaps just the money to significantly improve our infrastructure. Instead, people just had to make do, while the roads crumbled.

This isn’t meant as a criticism of the Malawian government, nor any of the nations that border the lake… but it poses real challenges for those who depend upon such services. Although I go to Malawi once or twice a year, I’ve never seen the MV Ilala. Perhaps I never will, now.

If the ‘rusting lifeline’ can’t be sustained, she’ll still be in good company. I come from a country that used to offer supersonic passenger flights, but stopped – and the only country ever to have abandoned a successful space launch capability*. The Americans don’t fly the Space Shuttle anymore, either. Is this the ‘new normal’? Must we concede that our forefathers could do things that we can’t? I think that in some cases this might be so. Opportunities are fewer, now, with materials more scarce and constraints more abundant. One of the greatest challenges must surely be providing for a nation with a growing population: there were 2.75 million Malawians when the MV Ilala was first launched, and 3.79 million by the time Malawi obtained independence from the United Kingdom in 1964. The 2015 population figure was 16.79 million, and projections suggest 30 million by 2035.

Already there is news of food shortages, and I doubt one old steamer more or less is going to resolve matters.


[*] In 1971, the British Black Arrow launcher put a single satellite into low Earth orbit: the last hurrah of a programme that had already been cancelled. The satellite was called Prospero, after the sorcerer in Shakespeare’s Tempest who chooses to give up his powers.

Faster than a Speeding Bullet

I was doing a bit of teaching recently, and we turned to discussing speed of delivery as a basis for competition. We watched one of the Next TV advertisements where they promise next-day delivery (subject to some fine print) and show off what appears to be a somewhat fictionalised supply chain.

See what you think of the implausibly shiny supply chain, where the chosen dress is apparently untouched by human hands, automatically wrapped on demand before being whisked on its way to the customer along roads that feature no other traffic, just a fleet of modern and clean Next delivery trucks.

Hmm. And yet this is a good strategy for online retail. You can’t really advertise the quality of the fabric, because the buyer can’t touch it. You can’t offer alterations or made-to-measure flexibility, because you can’t touch the customer. So what does that leave? Price-based competition is always going to hurt… so speed is the logical choice. Next day delivery (six days a week, subject to stock and courier availability, as the weasel words at the bottom of the screen explain) is an impressive thing to deliver.

Amazon went one better, and moved towards same-day delivery, in some cities… and then they went better still, if speed is your thing, with ‘Prime Now’, for one-hour delivery.

Stephen Armstrong for the Guardian was unimpressed when he tried ‘Prime Now’ in June 2015, finding the website glitchy and ultimately failing to get the goods. A little over three months later, Steve Myall for the Mirror got a delivery of groceries in 39 minutes. (Regular readers of Capacify might find their hackles rising at Myall’s statement, “Everything was in a paper bag so no environmental concerns.”) There was a minimum spend, and the cost of delivery was £6.99 plus an optional-but-included-as-standard £2 tip for the person making the delivery.

Andrew Hill for the Financial Times drew a valuable historical comparison with Victorian efforts to achieve fast and cheap parcel delivery services in London, concluding that the same factors that caused the London Penny Parcel Delivery and Automatic Advertising Company to disappear without trace are still in force.

Now, there’s always the risk of being proved wrong, but I think that the pursuit of speed has gone about as far as it can go. The logistic control and coordination required for same day delivery are impressive – even amazing – but if ‘within an hour or two’ becomes the new norm, it’s no longer a basis for competition: it’s just a qualifier. That leaves companies with additional expense to recoup, while chasing the same business as everybody else… unless this spells the end of the high street, and the market town.

Beverley, Yorkshire

Does same-day delivery spell the end of the British high street?

Is that a good thing? Is this what citizens want?

Then there’s the big rival: delivery at the speed of light. When I was a teenager, I’d occasionally buy computer games by mail, so as to save money. The first few cheques I wrote were all for mail order computer games, and the advertisements always advised the customer to “allow 28 days for delivery”, which led to a lot of wistful days spent waiting for the postman to come. Nowadays, if I wanted a computer game it would come from an ‘app store’, no disk or postage required. As soon as I click ‘buy’, the download can begin.

Computer game on cassette

Back in the days when it took six minutes to load 48K of data off a cassette, it took up to four weeks to get the cassette in the post.

I told my students that there was once a plan to deliver post by guided missile. That got a laugh, but it’s entirely true. Some research (and this excellent history by Duncan Geere) revealed that rocket mail has actually been attempted quite a few times, over the years. There were proposals to use artillery for postal delivery as early as 1810, and later in the century Congreve rockets were used in an experimental postal application in Tonga, although the residents ultimately floated their post on the sea instead (just as the people of St Kilda did). Then there was Herman Oberth (1894 – 1989) the rocket enthusiast who advocated rocket mail from 1927. Countries experimenting with rockets for post in the 1930s included Austria, Germany, the United Kingdom, India and the United States.

This business of pyrotechnic postage appears to have been common enough to give us a new word: astrophilately, meaning stamp-collecting relating to post that has travelled via rockets and missiles. Honestly!

Cover flown on space shuttle mission STS-8 and sold to the public after landing.

Astrophilately. All the cool kids are doing it.

This was in no way a precursor to the web-based e-mail called ‘RocketMail’, originating in 1996 and subsequently bought out by the ill-fated Yahoo, although perhaps with they were trying to achieve a blend of retro-cool and futuristic.

Meanwhile, things had got serious. In June 1959, a Regulus cruise missile containing mail in place of a warhead was launched by a Navy submarine, the USS Barbero. US Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield witnessed its arrival, commenting: “before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”

Let’s not smirk too much at the Postmaster General: we have the unfair advantage of hindsight – and it was nice to see a cruise missile employed in such a ‘swords to ploughshares’ fashion: for the next five years, the Regulus missiles carried by the USS Barbero and her sisters constituted the US Navy’s nuclear deterrent force.

Regulus cruise missile launch

USS Barbero’s twin, the USS Tunny, launching a Regulus cruise missile. The Navy called their first and only postal experiment ‘Missile Mail’.

One organisation that needs a different kind of missile mail is NATO: a Hellfire missile that had been employed during a recent training exercise in Spain was due to be returned to Florida via Paris Charles de Gaulle… where they mistakenly loaded it on an Air France flight to Havana, Cuba. If you’ve ever felt that sinking sensation when your ball goes over the fence and you realise you’re going to have to go next-door and ask the grumpy old man if you can have it back, you will sympathise with the United States military.

Ultimately, it may be that Missile Mail was impractical for the same reason that Concorde never caught on: not because there was no need for something that quick, but because it wasn’t fast enough when compared to the speed of light: telexes, e-mail, telephone and videoconferencing, instead of physical post and physical presence.

Yet Amazon, and others, are said to be experimenting with delivery by drones: pilotless machines that rely upon much the same guidance technology as missiles. Perhaps, once again, “we stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”

And you know how well that worked out, last time.

Fine words! I wonder where you stole ’em?

There’s just over a hundred articles on Capacify now, so perhaps I’m permitted a little bit of introspection. After all, where is all this heading?

In addition to using WordPress, I use Slideshare, Twitter, LinkedIn, ResearchGate, and the institutional repositories of three different universities. It’s quite a change of pace for a person that resisted having an online presence for years – and while I’m still very cautious about how much of my personal information is published (and Facebook still gives me the creeps) I think it’s good for my professional life to be visible.

“It sounds a little extreme, but in this day and age, if your work isn’t online, it doesn’t exist,” says Austin Kleon, author of ‘Show Your Work: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered’. From what I’ve learned in conversation with students, they really do seem to believe this: several times I’ve been told: “I did a literature search, but there’s nothing.” Never, yet, have I found it to be true, but there’s another factor: nowadays there’s so much literature out there that anything not immediately available will be overlooked by all but the most diligent scholar.

And why does it matter? Surely anybody that’s too dumb or too slapdash to use a library properly doesn’t deserve access to information, right?

Wrong. Because those of us who conduct research operate in a “gift economy”.

Unlike the Western world, where a person might be judged by the car they drive, the clothes they wear, etc., in a gift economy your worth isn’t judged by the wealth that you hoard. Instead, you are defined by what you give away. If this sounds naïve or simplistic, perhaps you’re right: it was the kind of system practiced by certain Pacific islanders before they were introduced to capitalism… but it’s also the system by which an academic is judged.

How many publications do you have? In other words, how many things have you discovered or interpreted, and then shared with the world? An academic’s promotion (or next job application) hinges upon their demonstrated ability to share new and interesting things with the rest of humanity. A successful academic isn’t just one that has authored a lot of papers, of course, because a simple measure such as this would be defeated by the cunning author who reports the same thing fifteen different ways, or indeed by a person who simply generates high volumes of drivel. Instead, then, we get judged by citations: a measure of how many times our work has been acknowledged by others… and once again, your work being cited depends upon its being visible. Hence my efforts to build a ‘personal brand’, and make some contacts along the way. I haven’t actually been approached by a wannabe co-author yet, but I’m still hoping.

The funny thing is, even when you’re doing your best to give something away, it seems there are still people who manage to steal it.

It’s almost ten years since David Buxton and I wrote a paper about the use of agent-based simulation to explore the payback time for aero engines under a variety of business models. I remain interested in that aspect of the aerospace supply chain, and I continue to read articles about the topic to this day. That’s how I came to read an article in the Indian Streams Research Journal (Volume 4, Issue 7). My goodness, I thought, this sounds familiar. And then I thought, hold on a second: I remember drawing that figure… and in the end I downloaded the article and submitted it to Turnitin, the originality checking system that we and many other universities use.

With a similarity score of 94%, the result was incontrovertible, and the editor of the Indian Streams Research Journal agreed… eventually. At second request, the plagiarised article was removed from their website. (Although they never did publish a correction, as far as I know.)

TurnItIn similarity report

Extract from a similarity report on the ISRJ paper: the red sections indicate text plagiarised from a single source. Charles Caleb Colton said that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, but I’m not so sure.

You have to wonder what ‘authors’ Farhan Akthar, Syed Amer Ali, Shiva Prasad Padigala and Bommidi Bhaskar of Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University, Hyderabad thought they would achieve… although as one of my colleagues observed, “they’ll probably get a job on the strength of that, and end up designing airliners or something.”

Let’s hope not – for all our sakes. Meanwhile, in Europe…

BBC News: German Education Minister Annette Schavan forced to resign

Never a good idea: German Education Minister Annette Schavan was forced to resign after the University of Düsseldorf revoked her doctorate because of plagiarism. [BBC News]

The initial reaction of a person who falls victim to academic theft might be to seek to withhold their work, and hide it away. That’s a mistake, though: in fact, I believe that the best defence against having your work ripped off is to share it widely, as soon as possible. I appreciate that it’s a difficult balancing act: lecturers exist in large part to disseminate information, and yet providing too much information opens one to accusations of ‘spoon-feeding’. An education should be about learning how to find out, not simply about remembering what you were told. Also, as researchers, we exist to discover new knowledge, which is pointless if there’s no dissemination… yet we must be careful with the data of our collaborators. We give information freely to our students, but if a company expresses an interest in something that we do, we need to seek a much more formal arrangement.

It’s complicated.

I know, from too many occasions where I’ve had to learn a topic in order to stand in front of a class and speak about it, that the best way to learn something is to teach it: the best way to get really good at something is to pass it on. That’s why Southwest Airlines are well-known for welcoming visitors, and have never been defensive about how they pioneered the low-cost strategy: the more you pass something on, the better at it you become.

American author Annie Dillard would approve:

“… the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

For this reason, and for many other reasons, blogging here at Capacify continues to feel like the right thing to do. And, most of all… it’s fun. After over a hundred posts, I’m still enjoying it. So there.

And remember, kids…

The Credible Hulk always cites his sources

(Totally stolen without permission, from Twitter user @stephenjenkin)

Also, the title for today’s article was similarly “borrowed”… it’s Jonathan Swift.

Seven Easy Steps to a Greener Cruise Holiday

Our paper on the carbon footprint of cruise holidays continues to attract a good deal of interest (link to paper and slides), and that’s satisfying to see. Still, it only tells part of the story. The paper described our work to calculate the carbon footprint of a cruise holiday, but that’s a partial job, for two key reasons.

Firstly, there are other forms of environmental hazard: sustainability doesn’t begin and end with climate change. For this reason, Christine and I are working on a follow-up study. Secondly, though… it’s ever so easy to criticise something without having a workable alternative to propose, isn’t it? We showed that a cruise holiday involved somewhat over four times the contribution to climate change of a hotel-based holiday, but we didn’t actually say how to make cruise holidays ‘greener’.

We have to keep in mind that a $36bn industry isn’t going to change overnight, and particularly not if the changes mean that you have to stop using expensive assets that have a design life measured in decades… but there are some things that a cruise operator could do. Not tomorrow: that would be unrealistic, but perhaps next season. Here’s seven things that could make a cruise holiday ‘greener’ – and that passengers could look for when choosing their next cruise.

1. Travel Less, Visit More.

As you might expect, persuading up to 100,000 tonnes of metal to move through the sea requires a lot of energy. Cruise ships get through much more fuel when sailing than when in port or at anchor. Cruise itineraries often include ‘sea days’, where passengers don’t get to go ashore because the ship is travelling non-stop towards some distant destination. For some passengers, sea days are alluring: days when you’re guaranteed to be out of reach of e-mails from your boss, or phone calls from your relatives. Lazy days meant for working on your suntan, getting blind drunk or whatever. Other passengers, though, prefer a more varied and cultural experience.

Sunbathers on a cruise

Baker [2013] reported that sunburn was the most commonly treated ailment on cruises… although sexually transmitted diseases came in at number 2. Lovely.

A typical cruise ship, while underway, will be burning through multiple tonnes of Heavy Fuel Oil per hour. Consumption of around 125 tonnes per day can be considered normal, and DEFRA [2012] report emissions from HFO consumption to be 3766.5 kg CO2e per tonne, so that’s 470 tonnes of CO2e a day. Naturally, emissions are higher on days of non-stop cruising, and lower on a day spent in-port when the ship is essentially a floating hotel. Thus, the itinerary is a major determinant of the carbon footprint – and a quick way to slash the contribution to climate change. The environmental benefits of an overnight stay in port (two days in one place) should already be obvious – and it also means a reduced spend on HFO for the operator and more opportunities for the host community to do business with the passengers, so extended visits are win-win.

On the other hand, perhaps you believe that in a port city like Genoa or Piraeus there are only enough entertainment possibilities to keep visitors amused for around six or eight hours… which is a little bit rude to the passengers and the host community alike!

2. Higher Occupancy is (Somewhat) Greener

Whether it’s half-full or crammed with passengers, the energy used by a cruise ship won’t vary significantly. When moving up to a hundred thousand tonnes of boat, a few tonnes of passengers and luggage isn’t going to make a measurable difference, so it makes good sense to offer attractive deals that fill unoccupied cabins. The costs associated with the boat and its crew are largely fixed, so the incremental cost of an extra passenger is almost zero – and even a deeply discounted cruise sees the typical passenger shopping on board, buying drinks, and losing money in the casino…

Thus, there is a good business case for discounting to fill up a cruise ship. It’s arguably greener as well, given the fuel usage discussed in point one. (The no-frills airline that everyone loves to hate, Ryanair, used to claim their sustainability performance was better than that of other airlines because their load factor was better.) Of course, a ‘deep green’ would argue that low prices encourage increased consumption… but that’s another story.

It remains true that it would be better to have 200 cruise ships at full occupancy than 300 operating with moderate occupancy. The trick, of course, is avoiding the worst aspects of a price war. It’s more profitable to use a cruise ship than to leave it mothballed, and information from suggests there are 296 cruise ships in use… but if we could avoid building any more for a while, it might actually improve the profitability of the industry, by reducing oversupply.

3. Go a Little Slower

A cruise ship isn’t built like a Type 23 frigate, and it shouldn’t be manoeuvred like one. Forcing that big hull through the water demands a great deal of energy: give the water more time to move aside and your fuel bill will be slashed.

A ten percent speed reduction could mean a twenty percent fuel saving… with a corresponding reduction in the vessel’s carbon footprint, and perhaps less wear and tear in the engine room. It’s really just a matter of marketing a realistic itinerary. The industry doesn’t need to compete on speed: a good, modern boat with lots of amenities is a destination in itself, and a passenger who really cares about getting places fast is going to fly instead of cruise, so why not take time to smell the roses along the way?

4. Scrub that Sulphur

The emissions from ships’ engines can be very bad for public health and the natural world. Heavy Fuel Oil may contain as much as 4.5% sulphur by weight, and combustion results in emissions of sulphur dioxide. That’s bad news for people with asthma or chronic lung or heart disease, and it’s a major source of acid rain as well.

‘Sweeter’ fuels are available, at a price, but Kalli et al [2009] suggest that an exhaust scrubber is the way to go. Particulates will also be trapped by this relatively simple retrofit, and it’s a cheaper way to cut sulphur dioxide emissions than buying low-sulphur fuel. With the expansion of sulphur emission control areas, cruise operators might be forced to abandon some of their traditional itineraries if they can’t clean up their act, so addressing the problem makes a lot of sense.

Current and anticipated Emission Control Areas

Current and anticipated Emission Control Areas

5. Watch that Whale!

One can only imagine how upsetting it was for passengers of Princess Cruises’ Sapphire Princess in July 2010, when a female humpback was found dead, pinned in place on the bow of their boat. This might seem like a freak accident… except that a finback whale was caught and killed on the same ship’s bow in the same way, one year earlier. In all, Princess Cruises were involved in three such cases in a decade [Gordon, 2010], the most recent two occurring after a legal case in which Princess Cruises pleaded guilty to “failing to operate at a slow, safe speed while near humpback whales”, and paid fines and restitution totalling $755,000 [Hunter, 2007].

Obviously, nobody in the cruise industry sets out to harm endangered species (and as Laist et al [2001] shows, ships of virtually all types have been involved in whale strikes) but whale-watching is marketed as one of the attractions of some cruise itineraries, and thus cruise ships deliberately sail in waters where whales are to be found. Smaller vessels that take people out to view whales for a few hours generally adhere to better guidelines: they approach whales only slowly, and from a direction that doesn’t cause stress. They keep noise to a minimum (shutting down the engines) and they don’t dump anything in the water. They typically limit access to a third of the total daylight hours: all very different to whale watching on a cruise ship.

Dead whale, pinned to the bow of a cruise ship

Dead whale, pinned to the bow of a cruise ship [Reuters / Daily Mail]

It may be possible to turn whale-watching into a paid excursion, transferring passengers that want to see whales up close into tenders. Thus, the cruise line stands to get some more money while keeping the big boats away from our large mammalian friends.

6. Plug in

Although the biggest requirement for energy comes from moving the boat, a great deal of electricity is required for other purposes on-board, such as air conditioning, lighting and entertainment. Even if the boat is moored, one or more engines will still be running in order to supply the boat with electricity. Typically, vessels in port use marine distillate in place of HFO because it burns a lot more cleanly… but it also costs twice as much.

“Cold Ironing” is the industry term for obtaining electricity from a shore-based source. Using a land-based supply greatly reduces air pollution from ships, and could substantially reduce the carbon footprint as well (if generated by a nuclear or renewable source). It requires that the port has infrastructure that allows visiting vessels to ‘plug in’, but this is becoming more common, and it has the potential to reduce a ship’s energy bill considerably [Sisson and McBride, 2010].

Hurtigruten have taken things a step further, and are exploring the potential for battery-powered propulsion. “I will be disappointed if we don’t have a vessel with battery propulsion within 10 years,”  said CEO Daniel Skjeldam [Nilsen, 2016]. Even if it has to be a ‘plug-in hybrid’… imagine that!

7. Promote Local Food

Part of the appeal of cruising is the idea that everything is taken care of. The full cost of the holiday is known in advance, and there’s no need to obtain five different kinds of currency… we get that. But can you imagine how disheartening it is for host communities is to see a swarm of tourists heading back to the boat to have their lunch? What’s wrong with sampling the local food? So many cruise tourists leave the boat (carrying a bottle of water), have a look around a market or something… and then stampede back to the boat because it’s lunchtime!

The more adventurous souls who have lunch ashore get a far better holiday: they spend more time at each destination, meet local people and sample more varied cuisine. Their holiday is a more memorable one, perhaps leading to repeat business… and critically it gives something back to the host community, who have put up with increased congestion and so on.

The cruise line that champions local food might actually save a little money, too.

And Finally… A Pinch of (Sea) Salt

In their ‘Ten Signs of Greenwash’, Futerra warned that being the cleanest in a dirty industry doesn’t indicate sustainability. There are no bragging rights to be had for being the greenest Formula 1 team, or the most sustainable cigarette manufacturer. With the cruise industry, we have something similar. In our research, Christine and I have already established that a cruise holiday is far from ‘green’… but I wanted to show that there are some things that can be done, in the near-term, that would lead to measurable improvements. It all comes down to what the informed customer wants. And for that… we will have to wait and see.


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