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AIS (Automatic Identification System) –

Maritime Security Risk?


Jul 7, 2010 George Backwell

AIS Tracking - I. Clipper


AIS tracking succeeds in adding to maritime safety and contributes to the U.S. Maritime Domain
Awareness strategy, but public access may assist pirates.
AIS (Automatic Identification System) tracking of merchant ships makes an important
contribution to marine safety and is a tool for the various authorities that oversee shipping
movements. At the same time, public access to this data through the internet is an added blessing
for the ship-spotter and marine enthusiast.

One of the best sites for ship-lovers is MarineTraffic which not only shows a vessel's position,
course, speed and other details broadcast from its AIS transponder, but has a menu that can bring
up photographs of the ship as well.

However, some analysts believe that this sort of access to AIS tracking has helped pirates locate
lucrative targets, and in his article, 'Somali Pirates Use Swarming Tactics' in Lloyd's List, 28th
June 2010, David Osler reported:

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"Somali pirates are still taking vessels despite the onset of the monsoon season, and starting to
adopt swarming tactics that see between six and ten skiffs converge on a single ship."

From this it seems that Somali pirates have become capable of discriminating between potential
prey, and having done so, to coordinate their attack on that one particular ship.

What are the authorities doing to address this problem? But first, what is AIS? And why do
ship's have it?

Read on

• Boaters Can Learn from Commercial Fishermen


• Automatic Identification System
• National Aerial Surveillance Plan

AIS (Automatic Identity System) Briefly Explained

• Information from AIS is intended to help ships avoid collision in coastal and narrow
waters, as well as to help various authorities monitor and control marine traffic (dubbed
'Maritime Situational Awareness').
• The ship's position is continuously fixed by means of a GPS receiver.
• Since December 2004 IMO (International Maritime Organization) regulations have
required all vessels over two hundred and ninety-nine gross tons to be fitted with an
operational AIS transponder.
• Transmissions from a ship's AIS transponder are made in the VHF marine band (161,975
and 162.025 MHz) which effectively means that range is limited to 'line of sight' (a
straight line between the transmitting ship's aerial and another receiving aerial).
• Typically, ships will receive AIS data from other ships (and see them displayed on an
AIS plotter) at a range of about fifteen to twenty nautical miles.
• Shore-based receiving stations may have much further range, entirely depending upon the
height of the aerial (the higher the better).

AIS and the U.S. National Plan to Achieve Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA)

AIS was considered a component of the MDA plan, aimed at enhancing homeland security in the
wake of the '9/11' terrorist attacks, although the deleterious aspects consequent upon unrestricted
public access to AIS tracking on the internet were probably not apparent at that time.

In their comprehensive article, 'Off Course: The dark side of tracking all shipping – pirates can
do it too' in the November 2009 edition of the Armed Forces Journal, co-authors Cmdr. James
Krasca and Capt. Brian Wilson state:

"Some MDA systems [AIS included] are accessible by anyone who purchases inexpensive off-
the-shelf equipment, and these networks serve as a trustworthy targeting system by non-state
rogue actors bent on maritime piracy and terrorism at sea."

AIS Tracking and Public Access – What are the Authorities Doing to Address
the Issue?

• It seems unlikely that the blocking of internet sites offering public access to AIS
information would be feasible at a coordinated international level, and only a few
countries make any attempt to filter internet content.
• In November 2003 IMO issued a notice permitting a ship's master to switch off the AIS
transponder when in imminent danger of attack. Nevertheless a pirate attack may come
unexpectedly, as when Somali-based pirates ventured far into the Indian Ocean to take
the supertanker 'Star Sirius'.
• The satellite-based LRIT (Long Range Identification and Tracking) system, a more
secure alternative to AIS, was authorized by IMO in May 2006, but will not become fully
operational until year 2014.

In the meantime unrestricted access to AIS information brings pleasure to thousands of ship
enthusiasts, while serving as a useful signpost to pirates or potential terrorists.

Read more at Suite101: AIS (Automatic Identification System) – Maritime Security Risk?
http://www.suite101.com/content/ais-automatic-identification-system--maritime-security-risk-
a258449#ixzz1A225Ydux