AIS - Right information in the wrong hands

Reprinting a post from my blog post originally printed here.

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.