Mandated AIS, an aid to pirates?

CE2009_pilot_meet_AIS_closeup_cPanbo.JPG

In the screen above I was testing Coastal Explorer 2009 with AIS target data coming in from a shore receiver network via an IP feed.  It was neat to watch the pilot boat rendezvous with a ship inbound to Narragansett Bay, and it showed off CE’s ability, like NavSim’s, to dead reckon targets (note how it’s using COG, not heading), as well as track them and pop up useful info with a mouse click (or finger tap).  But good data and good data presentation like this could be used for very bad purposes.  Despite all the discussion of Somali pirates last week, I didn’t hear anything about whether or not they use AIS to rendezvous with their targets…but I’m not surprised that they do, and that the crews thus exposed are pretty pissed off about it!

A Panbo reader who went to Mass Maritime, as did Captain Richard Phillips, tells me that there’s quite a piracy discussion happening on the its alumni message boards, including these words from a retired U.S. Naval Reserve Commander now sailing as Master Mariner in the Merchant Marine (boldface mine):

Pirates aren’t new, just their tactics and equipment are. They have better boats, better guns and much more sophisticated electronic guidance systems. Perhaps the worst piece of equipment the USCG/IMO has mandated ships to not only carry but remain in operational service is AIS.
    In spite of all the ISPS Security measures, the USCG mandates that we broadcast all the information about our ships to the whole world in real time. AIS broadcasts our position (accurate to GPS standards), course, speed, destination and number of crew aboard, as well as our flag. Its like a “menu” for pirates and terrorists (they’re both the same in my view) to plan attacks on us when and where we are most vulnerable.

    It’s ironic that you can be steaming along in the middle of the ocean, run across a US Navy ship all armed with guns, SEALS, and helicopters, and they are in full EMCOM (Electronic Emission and Communications Control) and we are out there, slow, under manned, and unarmed being required to broadcast all the vital statistics of our ship to any pirate who can buy them on line from the WEST Marine catalog, although they usually don’t have to buy them. They just take them off the ships they hijack.

I hugely appreciate the safety value of AIS, but I certainly understand this Captain’s frustration, and am a little surprised that the IMO has not already made it legal for mandated AIS vessels to go silent in the waters around Somalia.  If you were running a ship out there, might you consider pulling the GPS plug out of your Class A transponder, even it if you’re not supposed to?  But I was pleased that this Captain went on to say that the ultimate solution to the pirate problem is to eliminate their safe bases ashore (as opposed to hobbling a good collision avoidance technology).



Similar Posts:


Furuno & FLIR vs the pirates, IRIS
December 4, 2009

Automatic Identification Systems (AIS)
April 20, 2004

AIS-equipped weather bouys, multitasking big time
August 3, 2006

A Sea Captain’s Device
June 2, 2004

Ben Ellison

Ben Ellison

Panbo editor, publisher & chief bottlewasher from 4/2005 until 8/2018, and now excited to have Ben Stein as very able publisher, webmaster, and editing colleague. Panbo is going to the next level in 2019 and beyond.

19 Responses

  1. Dan Corcoran (b393capt) says:

    I wonder, with AIS active .. if that helps the Navy more than the Pirates. Especially Navy ships without air support … I would imagine AIS would allow the Navy to better plot an intercept course when outside the range of radar, easily cutting out an hour from their response time, useful if the ship has been over taken but the crew has safely locked themselves in the vessel.
    I would also imagine if gives the Navy a chance to help vessels that didn’t have time to radio a Mayday … the sudden turn towards the coast is a dead giveaway.
    Compartively the Pirates benefit less, their is enough traffic that the pirate ships can just troll for these vessels. The cargo probably dosn’t matter that much when they are accepting ransoms for a tiny portion of their value. And if they see a US or French flag, they can just turn the other way if they want to be smart businessman.

  2. Roy says:

    Touring a USCG cutter recently, I asked if they turn off the AIS when hunting drug importers. they said yes. I did not ask the next question: do they spoof? I would.

  3. I’ve got to agree with Dan: On balance, MORE information = LESS “fog of war”, which benefits the good guys slightly more than it benefits the bad guys.
    Obviously, I’m generalizing and oversimiplifying, but criminals of all types, in all environments, can operate most freely when there is a lot of confusion about what’s happening. Anything that clarifies what’s what for the enforcement authorities makes life tougher for the bad guys, even if the bad guys also have access to the information.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Spoofing could get politically and legally precarious if another ship has a ground encounter and oil spill trying to avoid the spoofed one.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Just get a big container ship full of navy sea, fake on AIS saying they have a very special cargo in 😉 . and just wait for the attack ( nice!! ). I am sure it will stop after that happen often ..
    Sorry for my English!!

  6. dave says:

    firstly all class A ais has the abiliy to be switched off by the captain and talking to some captains they do so.
    secondly its unlikely that somaliam pirates for exampke are using AIS, most dont even have charts etc. They just know the shpping routes etc,
    AIS is not a benefiting pirates IMHO

  7. bobetter says:

    Yep, obviously any AIS box can be turned off. It would be illegal, however, for any AIS carriage mandated vessel to do so and I’m sure the consequences would vary. But to think that the Somalians aren’t using AIS (and any other piracy-enabling device available) is naive, you can get a receiver for a fraction of the cost of an outboard motor! I don’t think they are investing the millions they’ve gotten for ransom in real estate (yet..) and with each successful act of piracy you can be sure their support system is becoming more and more sophisticated.

  8. Tim McCoy says:

    I knew this was going to happen.
    It’s only a matter of time before all Class B transponders are routinely turned off, or set to: receive only, anywhere near any remote coastline worldwide, out of enlightened self interest.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I hope that the growing intolerance of piracy in popular opinion will permit a sufficient use of force to discourage future pirates. Lets think of it as a contest and the Navy Seals are in the lead. Next inning it might be the French Foreign Legion? The Mary Kay Kommandos?

  10. Dan Gingras (Captdang) says:

    I really like the idea of Q SHIPS . and how the might be used to battle pirates.
    Reminds me a bit of what is done in the high tech world to catch cyber criminals… the Honeypot.
    This solves the issue of the pirates claiming they were innocent fishermen. If they are attacking the decoy there’s no doubt!

  11. mitko says:

    AIS is completely unsecure and unprotected. BTW it is possible to break down all AIS transponders in the area by simple AIS message from Base Station and it is included in ITU standard.

  12. Tacophan says:

    SOLAS regulations allow the master of a vessel to turn off the AIS if they believe the AIS broadcast is detrimental to ship security. Once the reason for the security concern is passed they are required to turn the unit back on.

  13. mar says:

    First off, I don’t think the Navy has AIS yet. When I got off the USS San Antonio back in ’06 AIS wasn’t even a consideration of the Navy. Maybe they’ve got with the program, but I doubt it. And if so that’ll be that fastest I’ve ever seen the military work. I could be wrong, that was back in ’06.
    Maybe merchant crews just need to start arming themselves, or hire armed security while transiting dangerous waters. Make it a little harder for the pirates you know. It’s easy to be Mr. Toughguy when no one is shooting back at you.

  14. Olsonist says:

    In intelligence analysis there is a logical fallacy known as mirror imaging. Of course al Qaeda thinks the way an upper middle class university educated Californian does. Why wouldn’t they? And since we know how we think then of course we know how they think. It’s only reasonable. Right?
    No, we’re a bunch of self selected marine electronics nuts and so we think that Somali pirates are going to use the latest in marine electronics. Why wouldn’t they? It’s only reasonable. Somali piracy started in the 1990s and it has been going on ever since. AIS is recent. The only reason we’re paying any attention to this is because there was a dramatic incident with an American captain.
    I’m not saying that terrorists couldn’t use this technology and I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be gaming possible scenarios (LNG terminals come to mind). But these 4 20 year old illiterates had about as much chance of understanding a Simrad or a Comar manual as we do. Little to none.

  15. bobetter says:

    Olsonist:
    your view of the Somali pirates differs somewhat from the BBC reporter’s recent report, link below
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7650415.stm

  16. Olsonist says:

    Good article. I’ve heard of the fishermen and of the militiamen but I hadn’t heard of the technical experts. Maybe they hang out on SA. Still I think we risk overestimating them rather than underestimating them, focusing on their technology rather than their tactics.
    In any case, the pirates in the Straight of Malacca will kill the crew and sell the boat. They’re quite sophisticated organizationally as well as technologically. On the other hand, Somalian piracy does seem to be growing.
    Dealing with the security issues of something like AIS will have to happen sooner or later. There are other more secure channels with which to communicate with the Navy. There are silent alarm EPIRB like technologies as well. Leaving it in silent mode seems prudent in high piracy areas.

  17. Tony Bessinger says:

    Sort of on topic; a great site for World-side AIS coverage. http://www.marinetraffic.com

  18. manuka says:

    Agreed on that superb Greek MARINE TRAFFIC site. Here’s my own swashbuckling sound card slanted setup just trialled-
    * UNIDEN UBC73/93XLT scanner receiver (suitably discriminator tapped) +PC sound card input (~US$100)
    * Attenuation of the delivered AF signal with (eventually) 100k resistor, as only “Mic” input was available on the laptop soundcard. This may well be an essential step for others, since many other laptops now lack “line” input sockets. Mine was a older Toshiba running XP
    * A simple 300 Ohm TV ribbon “Slim JIM” 162 MHz antenna
    * AISMon 2.2.0 NMEA software to reveal the received demodulator counts & message IDs, plus allow NMEA string saving & IP feed.
    * Registration of myself as a service (station 314) at the University of the Aegean’s (Greece) outstanding global monitoring site => http://www.marinetraffic.com
    * Following prompt advice on settings, then added my port info for the AIUSMon feed to the MarineTraffic UDP data receiver.
    That’s it- Google Earth even popped up great displays,capable of location reading to a few metres. In fact the biggest hassle related to warm but wet conditions here today, which prevented me erecting the antenna rooftop outdoors. However even indoors (& under the metal roof) reception across the nearby Wellington harbour was an easy 6nm (~10km) & signals came in from up to 17 nm at times. It’s apparent that a good antenna is essential to help deliver clean NMEA strings- indoors mine was giving ~ 10% error at times ( perhaps from distant ships).
    I can highly recommend this approach for wetting ones AIS feet, as the numerous technical issues to consider with e-navigation make SeaClear & ShipPlotter a tad too involved IMHO. Naturally they may be preferred for both old salts & professionals, but for us landlubbers “Live Ships” mapping from MT is true delight.

  19. It is howlingly, thigh-slapping funny to read IMO’s take on sites like MarineTraffic. To wit:
    Goal-based standards under development at IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee
    Maritime Safety Committee – 79th session: 1-10 December 2004
    Maritime security – AIS ship data
    In relation to the issue of freely available automatic identification system (AIS)-generated ship data on the world-wide web, the MSC agreed that the publication on the world-wide web or elsewhere of AIS data transmitted by ships could be detrimental to the safety and security of ships and port facilities and was undermining the efforts of the Organization and its Member States to enhance the safety of navigation and security in the international maritime transport sector. The Committee condemned the regrettable publication on the world-wide web, or elsewhere, of AIS data transmitted by ships and urged Member Governments, subject to the provisions of their national laws, to discourage those who make available AIS data to others for publication on the world-wide web, or elsewhere from doing so.
    In addition, the Committee condemned those who irresponsibly publish AIS data transmitted by ships on the world-wide web, or elsewhere, particularly if they offer services to the shipping and port industries.

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