Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines: detecting threats on the ocean with DNS data

Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines used Splunk Cloud to spot security threats across its floating IT estate.

The cruise company, which is the second largest in the world, manages threats on its complex ship network using a combination of Splunk Cloud, Enterprise Security and Stream apps.

Its information security team monitors a network made up of thousands of switches, pervasive end-to-end wifi, satellite connectivity at fibre speeds and multiple datacentres (with hundreds of servers).

Onboard, there are thousands of employee tablets, self-service kiosks, digital art, robotic bartenders, Xbox Live lounges and an abundance of RFID tags to be protected too. With 42 ships to secure, it’s no easy task, Michael Ramirez information security manager reveals.

Using data to secure your network

Royal Caribbean Cruise Line has seen something of a security revolution in recent years, due to the maturity of security tools and cultural changes across enterprise IT.

Following a security assessment involving penetration testing, security program maturity assessment and an adversary assessment to hunt potential compromises on the network last year, the company discovered its several security events that warranted further investigation- as they indicated a possible compromise.

But because it didn’t prioritise DNS data collection – other than for auditing and compliance – it could not determine which hosts were making callbacks.

“It was pretty frustrating knowing someone was on my network, but I couldn’t figure out who it was,” says Ramirez.

A DNS is a Domain Name System, which names computers, services, or any resource connected to the internet or a private network. The system links various information with domain names assigned to each of the participating entities on the network.

Ramirez saw an opportunity to use this ocean of rich data efficiently to find threats.

“DNS is a very powerful tool,” he says. “With the rise of the internet, there is more encryption and it is difficult to look at the payload of malicious connections. Now we rely on DNS as the initial indicator that something may be wrong.”

Choosing Splunk After disovering this rich data pool, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line found its legacy log management tool regularly fell over when the team searched for real-time data to identify breaches across its 100 DNS servers.

Concerned with the unreliable tool, Ramirez decided to deploy Splunk Cloud. It had previously used the analytics software to determine attacks on its website, and knew Splunk offered speed and flexibility. Ramirez opted for a cloud solution, weighing up expensive annual subscriptions with the efforts savings gained from using Splunk’s professional services – so the team could spend less time ensuring data boxes weren’t running out of space – and more time tracking threats.

It rolled out a combination of Cloud, Enterprise Security and the Splunk app for Stream, which captures real-time streaming wire data from a datacentre or cloud infrastructure and reduced the amount of load of Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s servers.

Performance and bandwidth The information security team needed to ensure its new data mining and didn’t impact the network for ship technologies, ranging from operational to entertainment purposes as well as customer wifi. Ensuring availability was a tricky task while operating on the seas.

But Ramirez says the network performance has yet to take a hit, despite the “tons” of DNS data it is ‘splunking’.

Now the system since rolling out in Spring, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines plans to spend next year advancing the platform. Real-time searching also gives the team data to hunt down activity through other types of logs too, which it will continue to use to ensure it is protected where possible.