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AIS manipulation should become a criminal offence

There are growing calls for vessel owners and operators who deliberately manipulate Automatic Identification System (AIS) data to conceal their identity or unlawful activities to be criminally prosecuted. The AIS enables ships to transmit tiny parcels of data, including vessel identity, type, position, course, speed, and navigational status, in a signal that can be received by coastal stations and satellites. This data is then made widely available through various online and offline services and used for business, safety and security applications.

AIS is standardised by the International Telecommunication Union and adopted by IMO. It is mandatory under Solas rules for all passenger ships irrespective of size, and ships of more than 300gt and engaged on international voyages, to carry AIS devices. Cargo ships of more than 500gt but not engaged on international voyages are also required to carry AIS equipment. There are also a huge number of vessels outside these parameters using AIS tranceivers for navigational use. But there are no global mandatory rules covering them.

Ship operators are increasingly manipulating AIS data to conceal their identity, location and destination, undermining the ability to track their activities. This concealment can encompass vessels that are engaged in illegal fishing, ships circumventing international sanctions, or shipping companies trying to gain a financial advantage by switching off AIS. For example, oil traders could affect crude prices by concealing oil that is kept in floating storage.

According to maritime analysts at Windward, increasing numbers of vessel operators are using AIS vulnerabilities to conceal criminal activity. They identified five methods of manipulating the data. Operators can transmit false data, or forget to transmit their destination port. Windward estimates that around 1 per cent of vessels with IMO identifiers are transmitting fake data, and there has been a 30 per cent rise in the number of ships reporting false identities (see page 28).

Windward analysts also said there has been an almost 60 per cent rise in masters tampering with the GPS feed to AIS devices to produce false vessel positions, often on the advice of onshore managers. AIS data can also be spoofed and inserted into a data stream in order to create ‘ghost ships’ in the congested sea of information.

This is happening because there are financial incentives to hide the real identities of ships and no global mechanisms to validate the data. It is important to maintain the integrity of AIS data because it is a key factor in navigational safety and maritime security. It is also increasingly important in daily commerce as businesses rely on the information to make informed trading decisions.

In the fishing industry dwindling stocks, volatile fish prices and rising competition are driving fishing vessels into more remote locations and increasingly into areas where it is illegal to operate (see page 36). Authorities can use AIS as a tool for tracking international fishing fleets and protect environmentally sensitive areas. Criminals can switch off AIS during drug running or people trafficking, thereby preventing authorities from tracking and catching the perpetrators.

The marine industry is crying out for a worldwide response to tackle the growing threat of deliberate manipulation of AIS data. But without any form of validation or policing the system, there is unlikely to be any way to prove manipulation, or whether it is deliberate. Windward recommended that the industry implements AIS cybersecurity and countermeasures to improve the integrity of AIS reports.

However, there also needs to be a method of identifying accidental AIS data errors, as seafarers can make mistakes inputting data or setting up AIS equipment. MarineTraffic business development director Argyris Stasinakis believes the majority of AIS discrepancies are accidental and down to human error. For example, the ship identifiers (MMSI number, IMO number, or call sign) on the AIS transponder may have been wrongly configured.

These errors can be minimised by cross-referencing the reported AIS data with known details of the vessel. Algorithms can be developed to identify AIS anomalies automatically. They can check previous locations with reported positions and validate course and speed declarations. Familiarising seafarers with how to accurately operate AIS equipment would also reduce errors.

The recent expansion in satellite AIS infrastructure has vastly improved capabilities for tracking vessels and ships beyond the limits of coastal stations. But without a global lead in tackling the growing levels of deliberate manipulation, authorities will not be able to enhance maritime safety and security. Tackling this growing problem requires better IMO guidance, making deliberate falsification of AIS data a criminal offence, and the prosecution of perpetrators. MEC