When most people think of pirates, they think of maritime piracy, in which people board ships for the purpose of taking cargo, kidnapping crew members, or taking personal possessions. Modern maritime pirates do indeed exist, along with a new form of pirate: the software pirate. Software piracy is a much bigger problem than maritime piracy, involving huge losses of revenue annually for record companies, software developers, and other companies in the software and technology industry.
In the maritime sense, modern pirates work much like their ancient counterparts. Their goal is to overwhelm a ship with a surprise attack so that they can take goods which would be valuable to them, ranging from shipments of cash to products which can be traded or sold. Fewer than 300 pirate attacks occur each year, primarily in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, but these attacks target valuable cargoes, generating significant interruptions of revenue. Some have resulted in prolonged military standoffs, with pirates taking control of a ship and refusing to release it until their demands are met.
Modern pirates are a bit different from the pirates of yore. Historically, pirates sailed continuously, regularly taking over newer and better ships to pursue prey. Modern pirates, however, live ashore, mounting missions in speedboats and other rapid craft to attack ships as they near shore. Pirate attacks are especially common around tropical atolls and island clusters, where it is difficult for ships to stay away from shore, making them vulnerable to pirate attacks.
Modern pirates strike at night, knowing that they will be difficult to see in the darkness, using grappling hooks to board the ship. Some ships have expensive lighting systems which regularly sweep their sides and decks to deter pirates, but it is difficult to keep modern pirates off a huge ship, since lights and crew members cannot be everywhere at once.
Pirates tend to target large cargo and tanker ships, because these ships are often minimally crewed. Heavy automation of shipboard functions allows companies to cut down radically on crew members, and the resulting small crew is easy to overwhelm by force, especially with weapons like grenades and machine guns. Once pirates gain control of the ship, they may attempt to ransom the whole ship, or they may steal cargo, the contents of the ship's safe, and the personal possessions of the crew. Crew members may also be held as hostages for ransom or safe passage for the pirates.
A variety of measures have been taken to combat modern piracy, ranging from increasing police and military presence in regions prone to piracy to installing tracking devices in ships so that deviations in scheduled course can be immediately identified. Some ships sail with a security team, especially around piracy-prone regions like Somalia, and major shipping companies also pay large insurance premiums to ensure that pirated cargo can be replaced.