November 06, 2014

AIS- more foe than friend?

In the six and a half years since “AIS- friend or foe?” was published, things have arguably gotten worse. That old piece of mine was more about the misuse of the AIS on board ships during navigation; a recent report strongly suggests, however, that spreading data manipulation is defeating the main purpose of the Automatic Identification System and its regime- maritime security.

Not that the navigational misuse issue has gone away. Far from it. For example, the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch said recently, in a press release, that the January collision between the multi-purpose cargo ship Rickmers Dubai and the un-manned crane barge Walcon Wizard which was being towed by the tug Kingston in the south-west traffic lane of the Dover Strait TSS was caused by Rickmers Dubai’s officer on watch not keeping a visual lookout and monitoring the radar, but rather relying solely on AIS information. 


This is hardly an isolated incident. Too many lazy or incompetent navigating officers continue to use the AIS for collision avoidance, especially in congested waters where a visual watch and radar plotting should be the focus. They also continue to give AIS data the same sanctity as they would give, for example, a radar plot. The potential disastrous consequences of this course of action are obvious. 

The data manipulation problem has been highlighted by specialised data analytics company Windward, which has just published a research report that says that vessels around the world are increasingly falsifying or manipulating AIS data, and thereby compromising maritime security.
Real-time AIS information on ships is freely available to almost everybody online today. As a result, people like commodities traders and commercial data mining corporations are using this data connected with movement of ships and their destinations to project economic and commodities trends. This adds to the mess; I suspect that at least some of the AIS data that is being manipulated today is being done at the behest of commercial interests.

The report says that ships are increasingly manipulating data to conceal their identity, location and destination. It says that AIS data is becoming unreliable, with “far-reaching implications, including to global security and intelligence agencies”. And it says that the incentive to manipulate will likely see a sharp increase over time.

The manipulation takes many forms. Over the past two years, for example, there has been a 30% jump in reporting false identities. One percent of all vessels report a false identity today.
Then, ships destinations are manipulated; only 41% are accurate. Windward underlines how this undermines “commodity traders and others tracking global commodity flows and supply and demand dynamics”. I am, however, more interested in the maritime security implications of such falsification. Vessels also manipulate GPS data (59% increase over two years) to transmit wrong positions. Chinese fishing vessels seem to be particular offenders here, but they are not the only ones.

“About 27% of ships do not transmit data at least 10% of the time, and large cargo ships shut off their transmissions 24% longer than other ships. 19% of ships that ‘go dark’ are repeat offenders”, Windward says. (Well, I am one of those offenders. I have ‘gone dark’ off the close coast of Somalia between 2000 and 2006 often, and I would do so again today. But that is because I don’t like to tell any khat chewing guy sitting in a fast boat with a rocket propelled grenade launcher in one hand and an AIS receiver in the other where exactly I am.)

Economically sanctioned countries have often created fake ships with spoofed AIS signals. Criminal gangs, including drug smugglers, are not going to install an AIS on their boats and mini submarines because the IMO says so. Spoofing or manipulation of AIS signals by terrorists or criminal gangs is another threat. Manipulation by interested parties for commercial reasons- or by fishing fleets for political reasons or to subvert environmental or other laws- add to the lack of reliability of a system that was meant to help fix maritime security. 

The said fact is that AIS information cannot be taken at face value by any security agency and can be easily spoofed or manipulated.Therefore, all of what they receive is suspect- and nothing is easily verifiable. How useful is that?


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