One per cent of all ships around the world are giving out fake identities via their AIS transponder systems, according to Windward, a specialised data company developing maritime intelligence technologies.
From 2002, the United Nations global shipping agency, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), mandated that ships over 300 gross tons as well as passenger ships and tankers transmit their information (identity, position, vessel type, course, speed and other safety-related information) to nearby ships and on-shore receiving base stations via a VHF radio. This Automatic Identification System (AIS) was designed to promote safety and avoid collisions by giving ships information on nearby vessels that might not be visible due to distance, bad weather conditions, or in crowded seas.
In a new research report looking at the real world applications of AIS manipulation, the magnitude of this trend and its far-reaching implications, Windward noted that since 2008, commercial satellites began collecting ship transmissions from space, allowing full time tracking of ships beyond the horizon. “The interest in the intelligence and security world is clear: knowing where ships are located and where they are heading is of key importance,” the company noted.
However, Windward pointed out that a major challenge regarding AIS data is that it is not 100% reliable as it is not verified and not sent over secure connections. “Any ship interested in concealing its identity, location or destination can simply transmit false information via the AIS system, and that transmission is received by the satellites and then shared with anyone who buys the data.”
Windward said that its research has found that this is a fast-growing trend: over the past year, there has been a 30% rise in AIS manipulation of IMO numbers (a ship’s identity number, which is not supposed to change throughout its ‘lifetime’), with over 1% of the AIS-transmitting ships now reporting false identification data.
Windward also revealed that only 41% of ships report their final port of call, a quarter of global vessels turn off their AIS at least 10% of the time and from mid-2013 to mid-2014 there has been a 59% increase in the use of GPS manipulation. Chinese fishing vessels account for 44% of GPS manipulation.
The company said it expects such figures to grow. “As ships become increasingly aware that they are being ‘watched’ via their AIS transmissions, the incentive to manipulate the data – report a false identity or destination information – is growing.” Shutting off transmission often raises attention as the ship ‘disappears’, making it easier and more common for ships to transmit false data.
“This trend of widespread and growing AIS manipulation will have a tremendous impact on all security agencies focused on maritime-related security, from navies to coast guards to Customs and Intelligence agencies. The data they rely on for maritime domain awareness is not only inaccurate, it is intentionally manipulated to avoid tracking by the very agencies that are using this data,” Windward said.
The company added that even though only some ships manipulate AIS data, all data now needs to be vetted to ensure decision makers have accurate information. “The implications are significant: AIS data can no longer be used ‘as is’ – once we know the data is manipulated, using any of it without strict vetting exposes decision makers to significant risk. Watch lists, a staple of maritime security, are rendered largely meaningless, as ships on those lists can easily adopt a new identity. And ships can both erase their own digital footprints and create ‘ghost ships’ that obscure the global maritime picture. Taking AIS data at face value has become a highly questionable proposition.”