In response to terror concerns, AIS website limits access to live data

A British-based company has stopped offering on its free website live, detailed automatic identification system (AIS) data gathered from networks worldwide after a shipping organization complained terrorists or pirates could use the information to endanger shipping.

AIS Live Ltd., a Dutch-British company decided to limit vessel information on its public website and restrict the more detailed service to annual subscribers, after the company met with a dozen shipping organizations in London in February. As of May, the free site only offers the names and call signs of vessels and no longer tracks ship in real time. Vessel locations are updated randomly on the public site, with a delay of up to an hour.

The annual subscription to the service, which provides detailed ship information, costs $1,320 for a single user. The website is a joint venture between the Dutch company HITT nv, which specializes in traffic control, surveillance and navigation systems, and the British company Lloyd’s Register-Fairplay, a maritime publisher. As of July, the site had 65,000 registered users.

“It was concluded that the move to a subscriber service -because it was the very free and open public nature which they were objecting to – was a workable and practical solution,” said Richard Silk, managing director of AIS Live.

However, Silk maintains that the radio signal used for AIS is public and that anyone can distribute detailed AIS data. “Unless they change the nature of the AIS signal, which I think is far too late in the day to do, then anyone with a radio tuner and receiver can pick up this data,” he said.

It’s not the public nature of the AIS signal that bothered industry groups like the International Chamber of Shipping, a London-based trade organization for merchant ship operators; it was the comprehensive nature of the information offered by AIS Live. An individual operator could only receive AIS information at a range of 30 to 40 miles, but AIS Live is a worldwide service.

“The fundamental reason for our concern was it linked together hundreds of sites, so that you effectively had a very long-range tracking system,” said Peter Hinchliffe, ICS general

manager, marine, about AIS Live.

AIS Live began providing real-time information on ships traveling in the English Channel and along the Dutch coast using AIS networks in May 2004. The information was free and available to anyone with a computer. The data included the vessel’s course, speed, next port, and latitude and longitude. AIS Live quickly expanded and now offers information on shipping in most of Europe and select locations in Japan, North America and Central America.

Almost as soon as the site became active, it generated controversy. In June 2004, a spokesman for the International Chamber of Shipping stated that “people of ill intent could get access to such information” and that “terrorists could potentially use the detailed vessels’ information on the Web site to identify targets.”

Several other industry groups, including Intercargo, Intertanko and the Baltic and International Maritime Council expressed concern about how data from a worldwide site that tracked ship movements could be used. “Our number-one concern is the safety, security and piracy aspect – what could happen with this information,” said Rob Lomas, a manager for Intercargo.

Shipping groups turned to the Maritime Safety Committee of the International Maritime Organization for help. After its December 2004 meeting, the committee issued a statement criticizing public distribution of AIS data. “The Committee condemned the regrettable publication on the world-wide Web, or elsewhere, of AIS data transmitted by ships,” the statement said. The committee also asked national governments to discourage the practice. The committee also condemned those who publish AIS data on the Web, “particularly if they offer services to the shipping and port industries.” But the MSC took no other action.

In February, AIS Live met in London with representatives of a dozen shipping organizations. That meeting produced the compromise that led to restrictions on the public website.

When asked if that meeting satisfied the concerns ICS had, Hinchliffe said, “I’d prefer to say they have gone a long way in addressing our concerns.”

He believes AIS Live is trying to be more careful about who has access to the site. “Again, we have some unease about that, but we have to be pragmatic in saying they’re doing the best that they can to safeguard information,” Hinchliffe said.

Silk said the company takes steps to make sure subscribers are part of the maritime industry. And many of the current subscribers are governmental agencies such as customs and port authorities and the police. Silk said one of AIS Live’s biggest clients is the European Police Office, the criminal intelligence arm of the European Union. Other users include ship agents and owners, ferry companies and major oil companies.

Silk said AIS Live was singled out for criticism because the two firms involved are major companies. He expects there will be less controversy about companies like AIS Live once the industry gets used to having AIS information in the public domain. “I think it’s an adjustment to a new way of doing business,” Silk said.


By Professional Mariner Staff