Thursday, January 21, 2010

AIS - right information in the wrong hands

In the mid 1990's when I visited the Indian port of Karwar, Trucks full of villagers came over to visit the ship for sightseeing. The same would happen when we went to Calcutta. Yet once on Gangway duty, when I asked one visitor to put down her address and phone number on the Gangway log, she hesitated. I reasoned with her, that since she had come over to visit my ship, I might also take it into my mind to visit her house to look around and to maybe have Dinner.

All I got was an earful from the captain who apparently already had her address.

Yet the incident has stuck with me as a reminder of the fact that the landlubbers often take the privacy of seafarers for granted. It would be a tough fact to forget, given that I am reminded of it often enough. We seafarers take it for granted that any port official with a badge can enter a crew members cabin with sniffer dogs. Yet that same official would demand a search warrant for the cops to check his apartment.

I view the proliferation of the Ships AIS information on the Internet as yet another example of the same syndrome. Today, anyone with an Internet connection can spot in real time the location, course , speed , destination, draft etc of a ship in a huge chunk of coastal area.

For the kind reader who is not from a ship background, let me explain. Under the ISPS regulations, every ship is fitted with an Automatic Identification System (AIS) which transmits the above information on VHF frequencies to the world in general. The purpose envisaged for this was two-fold. Primarily, this would give the coast state information on all the ships lurking around its waters (ensuring better traffic management, SAR etc) and as a bonus, other ships could also use this information for safety of navigation and in collision avoidance. What has happened now is that private individuals / companies have set up AIS receiver antennae on the coast and are putting feeds of all the vessel information live on the Internet. This is an example of such a site. Now developers are putting up applications on even the iPhone that lets you access this information. GCaptain has an excellent such app. Pictured above is a screenshot from another such app. Ryan at his neat website 59 56 N suggests that we can further make it better by adding machinery data, and as he says, "Better yet, shippers could also provide information about the owner, charterer, insurer, the works. And all of these, equipment supplier, owner and everyone else, could include a news feed, for the latest on the companies involved and their products/services."

Tracking blue whales is cool. Tracking emperor Penguins as they do their half yearly mating march is cool. Tracking Sputnik while it passes overhead is cool. Tracking ships is not. Granted I am being a bigot because I am not a whale, penguin or Sputnik. But here is the thing. This is my house. Unlike an airline pilot, I don't park this thing in an hanger for the night and go for the Mandatory 24 hour rest in a 5 star hotel. I sleep here. I eat here. And I miss my wife and daughter from here. And I do that for six months in a year. And when I am not doing that, some other chap is doing exactly that in this same chair.

Let me illustrate with another example. Suppose you lived in a neighborhood where the police feared that crime might rise in the near future. To preempt this rise in crime, the police chief decided to take a complete inventory of all the members and all the appliances of all the houses in the neighborhood. Now some of you agreed to it because you were good chaps and the rest of you did it because it was the law. Plus if you all had inventories ready, you could readily exchange it with your friends inventory and realize, say that John, three houses down had a nice lawnmower which you could use. A win-win situation for all.

Now in the middle of this, the teenage son of the Police Sergeant, who happened to take lunch to his dads office came across the inventories on his dad's desk and took copies of them. He then proceeded to stick all the inventories on all the street corners, the local pubs, motels, Biker gang dens and near the parole counter of all police stations. As they were pasting the last set near the out gate of the local correction facility, the teenagers friend turns around to him and says,
"Dude, you know what would be cool? If we could identify which of these guys had daughters over twelve years old. And to make it like really really cool, we should make those guys come over here and update their daughters age every six months. With their blood reports. "

Just pray that you live in a nice neighborhood.


Ryan Skinner said...

Good points, man. Nobody's getting the bio on my daughter!

But really, everyone's facing privacy issues with new technology. I hate to think what anyone can find out about me online. Probably way too much.

As they say, c'est la vie!

[loved the humor about the captain already having her address, by the way. subtle. hilarious.]

Cold is the Sea said...

Sounds like a little too much transparency. In this day and age there's no reason why that information should be available to anyone but federal and maritime agency officials.

Capt_Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Capt_Anonymous said...

One of my favorite things to do since I bought gTrax is to take a peek at my iPhone when I'm just about to roll out of my rack to go on watch. It helps me visualize what's around me before I even get to the pilothouse. (Disclaimer: I always take it with a grain of salt. Just because it is on the screen doesn't necessarily mean I'll see it out the window). Don't take away my ability to see AIS targets in the comfort of my cabin or living room on my iPhone.

In the US AIS is public domain data. Anyone with an AIS receiver has the right to access that data and feed it to the web. Until there is an encryption scheme in place for AIS, I'll work to defend that right if it comes down to a fight.

The Master always has the authority to choose to turn off his/her ship's AIS, but had better have a very good defensible reason for doing so. I can't imagine that in a TSS there would be any valid reason, but in an area of pirates I believe it is common.

Saying that adding an app to view AIS data is like adding more guns to the street is simplistic and silly. The information is out there, just like guns are out there, and in the US both AIS data and guns are readily available. What one does or does not do with that information or hardware is one's decision to make. There are always consequences that follow bad decisions. But taking away everyone's access to information because you're afraid it will be misused is a frightening prospect.

The price of security is liberty, and I've seen enough of my freedoms stripped away in the last ten years, thank you very much.

Velu said...

@ Ryan & Cold : Yes thats the way I see it. Thanks for the comments.

@ Capt A : Yes I agree the guns and even the customs search argument is too simplistic. My aim with this post was to atleast put forward a voice of caution and hope that there is atleast some thought about where we are going before we fall over the edge.

Firebombing of "Allah Laden" might not happen in the US. Can you rule out the same for "M.V Jesus H Christ" in the middle east. Also if the Somalian spare a little from their million dollar ransoms to offer John half a mill for setting up a similar system on their coast. Will he take it?

So now I see another onus falling on the masters head. Now I have to be aware enough and prudent enough to take a call about if I am right in transmitting my AIS signals in some part of the world or not. That is simply fabulous.

The gun debate is a tough one to go into, but atleast there is a debate going on there. If we seamen don't voice concern about information regarding us, who will?

But all the same, thanks for taking the time for the feedback.

Also 5 years back there wasn't even an AIS. So technically you are fretting over a liberty you didn't even know you had.


Jack said...

Nice App but I found another one that is really amazing. It has and history positions!