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Lars h. Bergqvist, Master Mariner, Norwegian Merchant Marine Lieutenant, Royal Swedish Naval Reserve: AIS - BLESSING OR A CURSE?
By Sea and Coast | 18/12/2019

This morning I observed from my balcony, far up on a mountain slope, an oil tanker down at an anchorage in the Mediterranean Sea. Although I was using a telescope, I could not read the name on the vessel´s bow.

However, that was not a problem, since I could easily identify her via one of the websites that are disseminating the AIS-info of the global merchant fleet.

To have easy access to the whereabouts of the commercial vessels that sail the oceans, does not only benefit ship spotting as a hobby, but also has a practical and commercial purpose for many people working in the maritime industry. Although, this was never the reason behind why the Automatic Identification System came in to use.

There was a time when you had to either come close enough to an encountering ship to read her name on the bow or on the stern, or you had to use an ALDIS- lamp and Morse code ask for her name. Alternatively, you could try calling her by using the VHF-radio.

Calling by radio was not a problem when you were in the middle of a large ocean, with a situation that could best be described as “ships that pass in the night”.

However, when circumstances were different and traffic was dense, it could be difficult to get a hold of the ship you wanted to make contact with. Over the VHF you would try to convey information like course and speed or ship type and color, with the hope that the right ship would reply.

The reason behind trying to establish voice communication was seldom social. Instead, in most cases it was a way of trying to solve a situation that was slowly developing into a close quarter situation; one that was too close for comfort.

The Navigation Rules are very clear, and ships will not collide if adhering to them, but it is also stated in them that “all available means” should be used in order to avoid a collision. Grosso modo, follow the rules and use the VHF as a last resort.

Hence in order to increase safety at sea, and when the technique was available, ships were equipped with an AIS-receiver/transmitter as a collision avoidance aid.

Also, coastal authorities installed receivers for monitoring and guidance of ships in their waters. The carriage was made mandatory in Regulation 19 of SOLAS Chapter V and came in to force 31 December 2004.

However, the introduction of AIS coincided with the rapid expansion of the Internet and concerns were raised that the AIS information could be publicized on the world-wide web. At its 79th session in December 2004, the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) of International Maritime Organization (IMO) urged member governments to try to hamper this practice. Nevertheless, it did not succeed, and numerous commercial companies started to publish  AIS  information on their websites.

However, the introduction of AIS coincided with the rapid expansion of the Internet and concerns were raised that the AIS information could be publicized on the world-wide web. At its 79th session in December 2004, the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) of International Maritime Organization (IMO) urged member governments to try to hamper this practice. Nevertheless, it did not succeed, and numerous commercial companies started to publish  AIS  information on their websites.

Obviously, IMO and MSC were not worried about any commercial use of the disseminated AIS information. Their concern was more in regard to the detrimental effect it could have on safety and security if the data ended up in wrong hands, like in the hands of pirates, terrorists and non-state actors.

The Tanker Attacks

“ The Somali pirates were considered by many experts to be sophisticated and tech-savvy, and it should not be ruled out that they have used websites and AIS receivers to identify and locate targets”

At the start of the Somali piracy, the AIS policy was discussed among stakeholders. The conclusion was that it was up to the ship operator to define the policy, however, it was recommended that the AIS was switched on.

The consensus was that the pros outweighed the cons. Better that the naval forces could track the ship despite the risk of being detected by pirates.

However, data transmitted should be restricted to the ship’s identity, position, course, speed, navigational status and safety related information. The Somali pirates were considered by many experts to be sophisticated and tech-savvy, and it should not be ruled out that they have used websites and AIS receivers to identify and locate targets (1).

Unfortunately, commercial ships have not only suffered from the menace of piracy but have also been victims of terrorism and warlike actions. The civil war in Yemen spilled over into the southern part of the Red Sea and Bab el Mandeb, affecting merchant ships. Although it was mainly vessels belonging to belligerents of the conflict that were attacked, ships that could be considered neutral were also targeted (2).

The recent attacks at Fujairah Anchorage and in the Gulf of Oman have got enormous media coverage.

Although what happened is common knowledge, there is still very scarce information available as to how the attacks were carried out and who the perpetrators are, though speculations are in abundance.

Nonetheless, it seems rather clear that targets were not chosen at random. All were tankers, and all had some link to the conflict in Yemen.  In the Fujairah incident, two of the ships  that were attacked were owned by Saudi Arabian companies, one ship was registered in the United Arab Emirates and the Norwegian flagged   Andrea   Victory   had    actually an American owner. The two tankers attacked in Gulf of Oman, were loaded with methanol from the Saudi port of Al Jubail and naphtha from Ruwais in UAE respectively.

Whoever was behind the attack, a state or a non-state actor, most likely had a professional organization  behind  them for support, logistics and intelligence.

They would probably have been able through information gathering, to identify, locate, and attack their chosen target; however, there was no need for this laborious task since all information was handed to them on a silver platter.

 

There is a lot of information to obtain from an AIS-signal, either directly or from secondary sources. The most important for a saboteur would be to identify the vessel by name or call sign,   and the position. Also, of interest could be port of departure and destination.

It was a walk in the park, to identify and locate the four tankers  at Fujairah anchorage. Equally, the operators behind the attack  in Gulf of Oman could easily observe on a website from which ports Front Altair and Kokuka Courageous left, that the ships were loaded due to draft indicated, and when the ETA would be for the lethal rendezvous.

Presently, there is an issue regarding switching off the AIS and going “dark”, not due to safety and security, but due to the sanctions against Iran.

Regardless, it would be prudent to discuss whether ships are put in harm`s way due to easy access to the AIS and that ships maybe should have the option stop transmitting AIS signals when sailing in dangerous waters.

 

 




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