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Risk in Context

Blackout: Turning Off Vessel Tracking Systems

Posted by Andrew Mackenzie 29 March 2017

In a world with political tensions at an all-time high, where the activities of terrorists and organised criminals continue unabated, ocean-going security is a pressing concern. Despite the improvements made to the automatic identification system (AIS), Masters can subvert these security measures, by switching them off entirely.

According to a study commissioned by The Times1, between January and February 2017, there were 2,850 instances where vessels “went dark” before traversing European waters. While some may have occurred on account of technical reasons, the majority of AIS switch-offs, according to security advisers, were done deliberately.

Vessels that wish to engage in illicit activities can manipulate the AIS system in several ways. According to maritime data and analytics firm, Windward2, the tactics employed include:

  • Identity fraud: transmission of fake or hijacked identification information (including international maritime organisation (IMO) numbers) to masquerade under different vessel names.
  • Obscuring destinations: non-reporting of calling points and final ports of call, which can have an effect on commodity and trading data.
  • “Going Dark”: physically switching off AIS to sever vessel tracking and monitoring. - GPS manipulation: transmission of inaccurate or false positioning data to alter the vessel’s true global position.
  • Spoofing AIS: transmission of fabricated AIS data to create “ghost ships” and their position where none actually exist.

An Analysis of the Magnitude and Implications of Growing Data Manipulation at Sea

AIS manipulation has an effect on financial decisions and the perception of supply and demand, commodity trade and individual commodity market performance. From a security standpoint, AIS manipulation hinders a maritime nation’s ability to control and safeguard its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and can allow for the proliferation of certain illicit activities, including but not limited to: 

  • Warlike operations.
  • Terrorism.
  • Smuggling: narcotics, munitions, illegal immigration, sanctions violations, etc.
  • Environmental: pollution, dumping at sea, illegal fishing, etc.
  • Regulatory breaches: improper bunkering, ship-to-ship transfer, Safety At Sea, etc.
  • Financial crime: maritime fraud, disputes, etc.

Together with other cyber-related crime, AIS manipulation and the means to engage in unscrupulous acts are usually one step ahead of the security developers.

For the reasons outlined above, the following recommendations should be taken into account.

  • Commodity traders and other financiers should be diligent and not necessarily take AIS data at its face value.
  • Utilise other sources of information and maritime/security agencies to verify vessel identities, their destinations, and their trades/cargoes.
  • Use software and analytics offered by internet security companies to verify AIS data. Anomalies caused by AIS manipulation and switch-off can be identified and reported upon.

1 The Times, ‘Security fears over cargo ships ‘going dark’ near terror zones’, available at http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/security-fears-over-cargo-shipsgoing-dark-near-terror-zones-gr2zjdgj9, accessed on 23 March 2017.
2 Windward, An Analysis of the Magnitude and Implications of Growing Data Manipulation at Sea, available at http://www.windward.eu/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/AIS-Data-on-the-High-Seas-Executive-Summary-Windward-October-20-2014.pdf, accessed on 23 March 2017
- Owners, agents, and managers of vessels must ensure continued adherence to IMO guidelines in connection with AIS operation and AIS data transmission.

Related to:  Claims , Marine

Andrew Mackenzie