Earlier I looked at the security and privacy issues surrounding AIS (the Automatic Identification System) and other navigational aids aboard ships. Today there was an interesting article about this on the BBC. Essentially, while commercial vessels are generally required to carry AIS transponders on board, it is also possible to switch them off. Vessels have therefore been able to bust sanctions by switching off their transponders, e.g. to make deliveries or enter ports that they are not supposed to. However, satellite imagery combined with big data analysis is being used to combat this.
Surface ships do not really have anywhere to hide on the sea, so they can be tracked by satellite imagery. Their shadows will change depending on the size of the load they are carrying. Data is available regarding which ports in which locations typically load or unload which types of cargo. The result is that it is now proving possible to track shipping and even types of cargo on the high seas, using data and satellites. Not only does this make it possible to detect when ships are carrying out illegal activity, such as ship-to-ship transfers circumventing sanctions, but also shows changes in the flow of trade, such as oil tankers diverting en-route to new destinations based on fluctuations in oil prices.
I’m concerned about privacy implications. Once again it shows how actors with access to significant resources – hardware manufacturers, state intelligence agencies, software companies – can extract more data from users (and even non-users!) of seemingly straightforward products and services than we may be aware of or be prepared to accept. As the resources required for big data decrease, with cloud computing and accessible user platforms, the barrier to entry will also decrease. If a country’s coast guard is capable of identifying vessels and their cargo on the high seas, that’s one thing – if a RIBload of pirates are able to do so as well, that’s another.
One of the techniques I enjoy for hiding data is steganography, hiding a message in plain sight disguised as something else. After all, even the best cryptography is susceptible to “ball peen hammer decryption” if someone knows you have something to hide. Incredibly, the principle of steganography has even been used at sea.
During the Second World War, the Japanese invasion of the Dutch East Indies left the Dutch navy in the area in grave danger. Their ships tried to escape to Australia, but were all soon sunk – except for one. The captain of HNLMS Abraham Crijnssen realised that their ship was all too visible at sea from the air – so in a stroke of mad genius, he had the warship disguised as an island! Moving only at night, and slowly, they evaded detection and arrived safely in Australia 8 days later. HNLMS Abraham Crijnssen served out the rest of the war operating out of Australia, and well done to the ship and her crew. Read more here!