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Advertising one's presence
[June 02, 2006]

Advertising one's presence

(Lloyds List Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)In times of conflict, inordinate efforts were made to keep commercial shipping as invisible as possible, lest an enemy discover its whereabouts, or probable route.

Indeed, in this newspaper, which in pre-electronic days, used to publish details of ships in port and those expected, such information was effectively censored until the conflict had been concluded.

We are now in the age of international terrorism, while piracy is prevalent in a number of areas in the world, but ships themselves, equipped mandatorily with the Automatic Identification System, now constantly advertise their presence.

AIS is necessarily an open system, and equipment to receive it readily available. The information provided to all, the whereabouts of the vessel, its identity, course, speed, destination and estimated time of arrival, could conceivably be of considerable benefit to a terrorist or pirate, able to afford a modest expenditure.

Should there be concern about this? Shipmasters, who very early one became aware that the benefits of AIS, sold to them for its use as a collision avoidance aid , and for the benefit of vessel traffic systems where precise ship identity obviously helped, was being regarded by security services for the benefits it would confer to them. It took little imagination to consider that the sort of information useful to the forces of law, could be of equal benefit to those of crime, and worse.

A balanced assessment of the risks, and the reality of the threat that may be provided to shipping, which so advertises its position is given in the current issue of the Nautical Institute Seaways magazine. Here, Dr Peter Lehr, of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews asks whether the fears of mariners have been overstated, or are realistic.

He recalls that when the NI conducted a survey among serving masters as to the security threat represented by AIS, an overwhelming 77% of those polled were indeed concerned, while almost half considered switching off their equipment in areas of risk from piracy.

Nearly one fifth of the masters were quite unequivocal and actually did switch off the AIS if they were operating in an area where pirates are to be encountered.

Dr Lehr makes a distinction between different types of seaborne criminal; from the low level armed robber , through the medium level armed assault and robbery, to the major criminal hijack, where the villains, whether they are robbers or terrorists, are after the ship and its cargo.

If indeed they are terrorists, and determined to capture the ship either to use it as a weapon, or to ship a weapon of mass destruction into a port, Dr Lehr considers that an AIS would be a 'force multiplier' for the terrorists, that would make their proposed capture much more certain.

For terrorists, as opposed to pirates, will have a specific target in mind.

On the other hand, he suggests that such a scenario, while of high impact, would be of low probability. The threat, however, he considers to be realistic and not beyond the bounds of probability, although often over-hyped.

Should mariners consider switching off the AIS in various parts of the world? Dr Lehr suggests that waters off the Horn of Africa are those which offer the greatest pirate threat, it being not unlikely that these villains, who have attacked a large number of ships may have the ability to use real time data from AIS. One would like to think , however, that the determined efforts of navies in these waters, might begin to make some impression on the pirate and hostage takers' activities.

What about Long Range AIS, which will eventually become mandatory? Because it is a 'closed' system and will be available only to the forces of law and order and those involved in Search and Rescue operations, the possibility of this data reaching the international terrorist are believed to be remote. There is, however, always that nagging doubt ...

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