Want to know what ships are docked in Tel Aviv? Need to track a tanker through the Strait of Hormuz? You can do it right now, for free, from home. The Marine Traffic Project takes advantage of Automatic Identification System (AIS) data to provide a near real-time position, speed, and course information on vessels in select regions. AIS data from ship transponders is collected and uploaded to the Marine Traffic Project in minutes. Combined with Google Maps, the data provides open source geointelligence on thousands of ships.

The US Navy does not regularly use the AIS system and does not appear on Marine Traffic maps (I will let our knowledgeable commentors explain the USN AIS SOP). However, as recent attacks off the Horn of Africa have shown, global shipping lanes are exceptionally vulnerable to low-cost tactics. Commercial shipping is the artery of the global market and the sinew of the international community. Tools like the Marine Traffic Project can provide valuable intelligence to armed groups looking to replicate the successes of Somali pirates, whether in the Niger Delta or the Persian Gulf.

Should access to AIS data be restricted? Are services using open AIS data a threat to maritime security? Share your thoughts in the comment section.

Posted by Christopher Albon in Navy

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  • Charley Armstrong

    No. AIS is vital for safety, not only for large ships, but for smaller vessels that need to avoid colliding with them. Should we restrict radar as well? The answer is of course not. There will always be criminals that will exploit technology to further their goals. Think about how the internet can be used – should we restrict access to it as well?

  • Mike M.

    I don’t think it CAN be restricted. Remember, the whole point of AIS is that ships use it as an ersatz radar. It requires a cooperative target, but offers far more information. Any anyone with about $1K can buy a receiver and plug it into a laptop. With the number of vessels required to carry AIS (basically any commercial vessel other than a fishing boat), there is no way to restrict the technology.

  • Actually this is an interesting question. Sure, anyone can access the signals in their area and publish the information on the internet. The problem is that it is not possible to get global coverage based on the current system of volunteers.

    With that in mind, the International Space Station recently brought aboard an AIS receiver to test reception of AIS signals from space. The goal is to setup global AIS coverage using a satellite constellation to collect the signals. That information can be restricted by the persons setting up the system. Lets see if they give general access to the test data.

  • This is indeed an interesting point and something we researched before releasing our Ship Finder iPhone app.
    Access to marinetraffic and other sites was already possible anyway on an iPhone but we decided to make it easier with the app.
    Since release we have had great feedback from both mariners and hobbyists.
    We believe that any self respecting pirate would own a scanner anyway as pointed out above.
    Our website is here if anyone wants to see what is possible on the iPhone.
    Be nice if the Space Station would share their data with us too!!