August 31, 2013

UN-Facebook Face-Off

At the end of last month, the United Nations rediscovered, when it asked Facebook for details of accounts run by Somali pirates, that it is not the United States of America. That country’s National Security Agency could get major US tech companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple to provide them information and data sent and shared by the likes of you and me; in fact, if Edward Snowden is to be believed, these setups were joined at the hip with the NSA, giving the now six-year old PRISM programme direct access to massive information-data mining on a gigantic scale. 

On the other hand, the UN’s Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea was ignored by Facebook last month when it requested a discussion on “information on Facebook accounts belonging to individuals involved in hijackings and hostage-taking." Facebook said that the UN had no jurisdiction.

I do not know what the UN hoped to accomplish with this attempt at information gathering from a social networking site. Did some lazy bureaucrat think he was going to sit behind a laptop and track down pirates and their backers in real life halfway across the world? Did the Somali militant group Al-Shabaab’s Twitter account shutdown in January (when they used it to threaten to kill Kenyan hostages) give somebody at the UN a gleam in the eye? Does anybody seriously expect pirates to make it easy to be tracked through social networking sites? 

All in all, it seems like a pretty useless thing to spend the international community’s money on, but then the UN is known for spending large amounts of money on useless things.

Closing the stable door after the horse has bolted, too. Somali piracy has declined, thanks to armed guards on ships (and little thanks to the UN or the IMO.) On the other hand, piracy on the other coast of Africa is doing quite well, thank you. Maybe the UN should focus its attention where the problem exists. Judging by the numbers of emails telling me of lotteries I have won, the Nigerians seem to use the internet copiously; I am sure they must be on Facebook too. 

I expect legitimate law enforcement agencies, including from those Asian countries whose seamen are badly affected by piracy, will probably be obstructed by Facebook and the like too, should they ask for information. It is a sign of the times that criminals can use sites like YouTube and others quite effectively to get their message across- pirates putting up short films of pathetic looking seamen hostages, threatening violence and demanding money, for example, and the ‘good guys’ cannot use that information- or what is behind that information- to track the criminals. Facebook, Microsoft, Google and the like can give direct access to my account to the US government, but giving indirect information to the UN on pirates is a no-no. 

Actually, the problem is not Facebook but the international community that the UN claims to represent. Assume, for a moment, that something tangible was to be gained by the UN getting access to pirate profiles from Facebook-that, by giving the UN the information it wanted, Facebook could have helped in striking a blow against piracy. It chose not to. It chose to hide behind some legalese, and the international community, represented by the UN, seems to have accepted that. It appears that criminals have a right to privacy but hostage crews do not.

No surprise then, that people like me wonder. When wars, occupation and loot of countries like Iraq can be sanctioned based on confessed lies at the UN, as in Colin Powell’s case, why it is that the truth cannot be used to protect seamen and the ninety per cent of world trade figure that I am so sick of hearing about?

If the US wanted, it could slap a subpoena on Facebook’s ass before breakfast tomorrow morning, and Facebook would have to cough up whatever the UN wanted it to.



August 22, 2013

Blaming gravity

(Disclaimer: I am connected, amongst other things, with maritime training. Try and ignore that when you read this, please; I have.)

The Indian administration will soon roll out a Comprehensive Inspection Programme that will outsource periodic audits of Maritime Education and Training institutes to classification societies. In a first, inspections will grade MET setups under a wide variety of headings including infrastructure, faculty, pedagogy, CSR activities and the institution’s post training job ‘placement’ records instead of simply checking for compliance with the Directorate General of Shipping’s rules. There are six grades in all in the CIP, covering a score from ‘below 50 per cent’ to ‘above 90 per cent’. Although the programme is intended to cover Pre-Sea training, there are plans to have it cover Post Sea courses as well later. Amongst other things, gradings will influence an institute’s DGS approvals for additional courses and increased intake in existing ones.

This piece is not meant to be a dissection of the CIP, which can be (and I am sure, will be) nit-picked by others. I, for one, think that it has many strengths, the main one being that it is dynamic; it goes beyond idly ‘meeting DGS requirements’ and grades instead. It tries to differentiate the good from the bad- or the downright ugly- based on quality of infrastructure, training and overall commitment. That can only be a good thing. 

I wish the CIP had addressed the grading of MET setups based on their size, though. A small setup conducting just one ratings course, for example, will find it much more difficult to hit the top grade now. Because it will be more difficult for it to find or allocate resources- including, most importantly, in personnel- when compared with a large institution conducting, say, a dozen courses. Even though the focus on quality may be visibly higher in the smaller setup, its grade may be lower because of resource constraints.

But that is a smaller issue. What is more disappointing in the CIP strategy is that, once again, the entire onus for improving quality of future Indian ratings and officers has been completely (and unfairly) put on the MET establishment. This is because the CIP, like the earlier regime, seems to think that giving jobs or training berths to graduates is the training institute’s responsibility. It allots almost a quarter of the maximum scoreable ‘credit points’ (used in grading) under ‘Recruitment and Placement’ in the CIP.

That this is a majorly flawed strategy has been proved over time. Firstly, institutions not connected directly to shipping companies are in no position to guarantee jobs or training berths to their graduates. Adding to this is the lack of industry interest in freshers, not to speak of naked corruption, in many private and public sector shipping companies, Indian or foreign. In most instances, a graduate can only get his first sea berth if he pays somebody or he knows somebody. Doing nothing about that entrenched and accepted rot while simultaneously grading MET in ‘placement’ is setting ourselves up for failure. I rest my case by pointing out that even toppers in the GP Ratings’ post Pre Sea training Board Exams (conducted under aegis of the DGS, I may add) cannot get jobs today without bribery or nepotism. If improvement in quality is the goal, this way of trying to reach it is futile.

Incidentally, ignoring the corruption in the first-job market has also direct fallout on quality of MET intake. Some people think that the recently reported poor job market in India, coupled with the rising dollar, will make shipping more attractive to youngsters.  I disagree. I doubt any increased interest will be significant, because I think the rot in recruitment runs too deep, and everybody, including potential entrants to the profession, knows about it.

A MET setup can take the smartest eighteen year old in India and train him superbly, producing a stellar cadet or rating at the end of the exercise. Then what? Since they don’t own or manage ships, MET setups can only then ask- in the circumstances of today- that youngster to pay a bribe to get his first on board training berth.  How many smart eighteen year olds do you think we will get that way? How will quality improve?

(My generation paid sweet nothing to get a job or training berth. Why have things deteriorated to this extent in thirty odd years? Why have they been allowed to?)

By the way, a MET setup placing its graduates by bribery and corruption can still be top graded under the CIP, because its records will show ‘100 per cent placement.’ Is that the way we want to grade our institutions? 

The introduction of the CIP is not going to improve quality unless we accept what we know already, and act to fix the problems in the domains where they lie. Placement of graduates in the job market cannot be the sole (or even the major) responsibility of MET. I say roll out the CIP, amending the placement weightage appropriately. Simultaneously, clamp down on the many malpractices that are part of the recruitment and on board training sewer today.

The CIP is a good idea- maybe even a great one. But not if we make MET institutes responsible for ‘placement’. Not if a quarter of their grading is dependent on their ability to secure jobs for their people- something they have little control over. Unless the administration fixes responsibility and accountability appropriately, the CIP- that good idea- will fail. 

As Einstein said, you can’t blame gravity for falling in love.



August 15, 2013

The Rime of the gobsmacked mariner

One begins to seriously question the competence of professionals that get gobsmacked too easily, which is what I did when I read the story- first carried on Fox news and faithfully reproduced by large sections of the maritime press without comment- saying that a ‘frightening new study’ showed that terrorists could spoof GPS signals to ‘hijack ships’, run them aground and ‘shut down ports’- and presumably do other mentionable things with these guided missiles. All this, with navigators aboard the target vessel absolutely unaware of what was happening. 

“Using a laptop, a small antenna and an electronic GPS “spoofer” built for $3,000, GPS expert Todd Humphreys and his team at the University of Texas took control of the sophisticated navigation system aboard an $80 million, 210-foot super-yacht in the Mediterranean Sea,” Fox tells us.
“We injected our spoofing signals into its GPS antennas and we’re basically able to control its navigation system with our spoofing signals,” Humphreys told Fox News. 

Now spoofing of GPS signals is not a new development; I had written about it myself last year, pointing to the potential threat of spoofing- creating fake GPS signals that change user perceptions of time or location, essentially feeding false coordinates to a GPS. Of course the potential for mischief is tremendous, especially with the newer ECDIS systems and what I see as a modern navigator’s dangerous overreliance on electronics and simultaneous disregard for common sense. But spoofing is a far cry from taking control of a ship without its navigator’s knowledge. 

So I was not impressed that Humphreys and his gang were able to spoof the yacht’s GPS and steer the yacht off course with the GPS showing, all the while, that the vessel was on her intended course. 

And I was certainly not impressed with the yacht’s Capt. Andrew Schofield, who was gobsmacked by it all. “We on the bridge were absolutely unaware of any difference,” Schofield said. “I was gobsmacked -- but my entire deck team was similarly gobsmacked,” he told Fox News.

Spoofing GPS signals is not enough; to control vessels, one must be able to take over- on ships steering on autopilot- electronic navigation systems, provided they are set to control the autopilot (If they are not, you can’t do it). Large alterations of course- open sea or not- will be easily noticed by the navigator; forget the changing positions of the sun or the stars, most will notice even the change in vibration as the rudder is applied.

I admit it may be theoretically possible to make regular small alterations of course and slide a ship on a parallel course without triggering the off-course alarm or otherwise alerting the navigator- the end result similar to a ship that has drifted far from her intended position in strong wind or current even as she maintains her intended course. Given that hardly anybody uses the sextant any longer to confirm GPS positions, this may work in the open sea. 

But, unless the navigator is sufficiently substandard, such a surreptitious attempt to take over or terrorise a ship will never work close to land, if the horizon includes a single visible rock, or with other ships around. Only the most useless navigator will fail to notice- visually or on radar- the changes in relative bearings that he sees as a ship turns. A navigator relying completely on instruments like the ECDIS or the GPS and disregarding what the radar or his senses are telling him is not worth the salt he tastes on his lips. Only a substandard navigator will fail to confirm electronic positions with visual bearings or radar positions, parallel indexing and the like. Corollary: only a substandard mariner will be gobsmacked if his ship’s steering system is taken over without his knowledge.  

In any case, I wonder how many terrorists will be inclined to take all that trouble to take over a ship - including, presumably, taking the trouble to install clandestinely hacking equipment aboard the target vessel- if the eventual ‘hijack’ can be so easily detected or can be successful only in the open sea, miles from anywhere. And if a hijack attempt can be checkmated by just one navigator using two fingers to switch the system from autopilot to manual steering. 

A terrorist, like the University of Texas, should not hope for substandard navigators to make a point.

Meanwhile, Humphreys berates the US Department of Homeland Security for not taking him and his GPS terrorism threats seriously enough. Methinks the University of Texas wants a few million dollars from the US Government to ‘study’ the highly overstated GPS terrorist threat problem. Old story, this: first cry overrated wolf and then rake in the moolah studying the animal to death. 


August 08, 2013

Undermining overriding authority (reposted)

Five year old article, perhaps still relevant

Undermining overriding authority

Personal communication, a seaman’s right.

To the best of my knowledge, there is nothing- not even in the much hyped Maritime Labour Convention- that requires shipowners of all ocean going ships to compulsorily provide internet or email facilities to their crews. That, in 2013, four of five seafarers have no access to the internet at sea is ridiculous. That the picture is even more dismal for ratings- 97 per cent of whom have no internet access- is also discriminatory.

There are more than a few shipowners and shipmanagers that provide generous email facilities for officers- and, increasingly, for ratings as well- aboard their ships. They are the smarter ones, but, as figures show, most seamen are not granted this apparent luxury.

Ashore, with work-personal life lines getting increasingly blurred, and with smartphones (often company paid) everywhere, personal communication during working hours is a commonplace occurrence. Our seamen, who have little personal life at work anyway, deserve more, not less, of this facility. At the minimum, they should have a codified and legal right (legal, since depending on shipmanager goodwill is breaking wind against thunder), to be able to send and receive emails to anybody they want to on a daily basis. And they should have a right to do this in some sort of privacy. 

Even those spurious arguments that were put forward against free shipboard email access half a decade ago don’t apply any longer. Installation of new facilities is relatively inexpensive even if these are needed. But in most cases even that is unnecessary; tweaking the software and the installation and networking of a few ‘extra’ computers on each ship is all that is required. If bandwidth cost is a concern, ban attachments or limit their size, if you must. And reduce by half the thousands of emails that your office sends the ship every year, while you are about it.

Other fake arguments against crew email have included the stupid (crew won’t work), the callous (it is not in their contract), the patronising (crew’s families don’t normally have email accounts, Captain,  one Superintendent told me not all that long ago) and the plain dumb (We didn’t have email when we sailed, one 55 year old manager told me once. We wrote letters. Sure you did, I thought. And before you they used carrier pigeons. And before that, they wrote messages in a bottle and threw it over the side. And before that, they probably shouted across the water. So what’s your point? Regression is virtuous?)  

It is reprehensible how we expect ship’s crew to sail for months on end with such little contact with their families. The advent of mobile phones has eased the situation somewhat: anybody who has sailed recently will tell you for the rush for prepaid SIM cards at each port of call. When sailing on fixed runs, all of us had a half dozen or so of these cards, one for each country that we touched. Stories of ships hugging the coast to get a good mobile phone signal are well known; I have done this myself.

(Tut-tut, some out of date shipping gaffer will no doubt tell me from the safety of his shore office. That practice can be a safety hazard. That is another fake argument, sir, and insulting to boot, because it questions my competence.)

Today, short port stays and restricted shore leave mean add to the seaman’s isolation from family and from society. I can tell you, from experience, that I used to find it very difficult to even find time to call my family using my own mobile phone in port, work was that crazy. Terminals across the world, barring few exceptions, usually have few phone or internet facilities. Internet cafes and long distance calling booths have closed down as demand has collapsed with mobile phones and internet saturation ashore. All this makes communication for a seaman much tougher than it used to be. Than it needs to be.

Which is why cheap and regular communication at sea should be every seaman’s basic right. Not an industry ‘best practice,’ as shipmanagers will have you believe, but a right. In any case, shipping’s best practices are best left uncommented upon.

Somebody amend the Maritime Labour Convention, please. Just one line: ‘On oceangoing vessels, free email facilities must be provided daily to each crew; it is a seafarer’s right.’

Maybe the MLC will then do some good after all.