Features February 2011 Issue

Is AIS Chipping Away at Our Freedoms?

The Coast Guard’s Maritime Domain Awareness program chips away at our boating freedoms.

Illustration by Regina Gallant
Illustration by Regina Gallant

Widely promoted as a navigational and safety aid, the Automatic Identification System is part of the international Global Marine Distress and Safety System’s network of land-, sea-, and satellite-based communications.

Sailors who read George Orwell’s “1984” when it was first published 62 years ago probably wrote off being tracked as a technological feat that was about as unlikely as the discovery of a tiny black box that would replace the sextant. Six decades later, GPS-based navigation has become de rigueur, and the big question is not if, but how tracking technology will be used. The upside of being locatable 24/7 includes many safety and search-and-rescue benefits. But the intrusive downside goes well beyond its impact on sailing’s get-away-from-it-all appeal. For many, there’s growing concern over the unintended consequences linked to being a very noticeable dot on some tracker’s grid.

If you’re already starting to glaze over, expecting a rambling unfocused diatribe about Big Brother and hyper scrutiny, let’s clear the deck and recognize that this isn’t a hypothetical rant about an over-scrutinized citizenry or a whacky treatise on freedom versus security. It’s a matter-of-fact look at a system that’s already in place and being sold in chandleries, on websites, and via marine catalogs across the country—and it’s known to us all as AIS.

For some reason, the full role of the Automatic Identification System (AIS) has gone mostly unmentioned. Instead, the technology has been sold to sailors as a “must have” collision-avoidance aid. For example, the already implemented AIS (Class A version) is a must-carry for vessels over 300 gross tons and certain high-speed yachts. Other craft may install the compatible Class B transceiver and become part of a localized collision-avoidance grid. We have written quite a bit about the system’s advantages as an aid to navigation, but up until now, we haven’t pointed out that the system also represents the foundation for the Department of Homeland Security’s “Maritime Common Operating Picture,” a vessel-tracking system run by the U.S. Coast Guard and dubbed the National Automatic Identification System (NAIS).

In a recent USCG Acquisition Directorate statement, the goal of Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) was pretty well defined, and security seemed to top the list of objectives. According to this directorate, “AIS data is combined with other government intelligence and surveillance information to form a holistic, over-arching view of maritime traffic...detecting anomalies, monitoring suspicious vessels, and pinpointing the location of potential threats.” We have yet to see this verbiage used in any promotional material or sales pitches about AIS. Magazines have been touting the importance of vessel-to-vessel awareness, and we sailors are excited about the system’s function as a collision-avoidance tool. But the less-advertised tracking feature also deserves some attention.

Photos by Al Herum and courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard
Photos by Al Herum and courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

Practical Sailor tested the West Marine Class B AIS1000 (with screen display at right) in September 2009. The device was one of the early versions of two-way transceivers aimed at recreational boaters.

The flip side of the AIS coin is its contribution to Maritime Domain Awareness, a capability that comes from a $27 billion investment portfolio that the USCG Acquisition Directorate is handling. NAIS is one of its premier projects, and when fully implemented, it will include satellite surveillance of all AIS signals up to 2,000 miles from the coast, plus monitoring equipment on cutters, data buoys, and offshore platforms. Recently built towers that rim the U.S. coastline are already getting an upgrade in order to track AIS signals as part of the Rescue 21 program, a new, advanced communications system that is replacing obsolete radio comm systems. All this surveillance info will be channeled through a network and shuttled on to control centers. The data will be continuously monitored and kept ready to be passed along to other security agencies. As the architects of the plan put it, “Armed with a comprehensive view of our nation’s waters, decision-makers will be better positioned to respond to safety and security risks.” For some, this probably sounds reasonable and reassuring, but for others, there’s a little voice in the back of their head saying that it sounds just a little too Orwellian.

Regardless of your vantage point, you might ask the question, “Who will be deemed a ‘decision-maker’ and who will place the suspicious label on a specific vessel and crew?” In essence, a sailor’s Good Samaritan effort to share location data will automatically enroll them in a data bank that tracks all of their movements. And the information could even be used by agencies for which you need a top-secret clearance to find their phone number.

Photos by Al Herum and courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard
Photos by Al Herum and courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

In order to present a balanced perspective, I’ll paraphrase what Kip Louttit—a friend who’s a retired USCG captain, ocean racer, and regular speaker at Safety at Sea seminars—had to say about AIS and the USCG’s Rescue 21. Kip has heard both sides of the argument and speaks candidly about what’s going on. He’s quick to point out that there is an elevated threat level caused by terrorism around the world, and like it or not, “The gun mounts are back on Coast Guard cutters,” he says. Port security is a big deal, and knowing who and what’s in play in coastal waters is a significant issue. He admits that the average young, capable USCG small-boat coxswain and crew usually have little understanding of what’s involved in handing a sailboat—or for that matter, why the sailor isn’t instantly accessible on Channel 16, and why any level-headed adult would stand out in the rain, tugging on lines, when they could have purchased a motorboat with pilot house and a captain’s chair.

Photos by Al Herum and courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard
Photos by Al Herum and courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

U.S. Coast Guard officers monitor the Automatic Identification System at the Maritime Intelligence Fusion Center Atlantic in Virginia Beach, Va.

When it comes to suspicious actions, checkoffs on the tickler list include non-resident craft arriving from offshore or coastal waters, vessels that appear to be riding low on their lines, craft underway at night with a minimal radar signature, and boats with no deck lighting and only the bare minimum of navigation lights displayed. Unfortunately, we have just described the average cruising sailboat, and the question is, “Will AIS data eliminate or escalate suspicion?” Theoretically, a quick check of the linked Homeland Security Database will reveal who owns the boat, and (hopefully) their lack of a criminal record, their standing as a good taxpayer, and perhaps even their travel history. However, if you happen to be like my 9-year-old grandson, who has the same name as someone on the TSA security watchlist, you too may be cornered by agents and put through a nautical, rather than airport, ringer.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard
Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

The Coast Guard’s new 45-foot Response Boat is part of an ongoing upgrade that includes an increased role for tracking technology such as AIS.

Innocent cruisers who have been boarded by law enforcement often re-calibrate their assumptions about privacy and search-and-seizure laws. Even when masterfully carried out, an armed boarding team telling you to stand aside as they search your sailboat can be a little unnerving. I clearly recall an episode at sea when a member of a USCG boarding team caught the hammer of his holstered automatic under the lifeline, twanged it free and proved why it makes sense not to carry a round in the chamber. During this incident, my kids stood by as a young lieutenant informed us that his crew was going to search their cabin for Haitian stowaways. In short, even with the most courteous and professional of intrusions, you quickly realize that you have more rights in your car when you’ve been pulled over for doing 65 in a 40-mph traffic zone, than you do aboard a live-aboard sailboat.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard
Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

Multiple AIS targets swarm outside the Dardanelles in this chartplotter image taken during contributing editor Joe Minick’s recent AIS field experiments, described in the August 2010 issue of Practical Sailor.

The lingering question is how long will we be able to hang on to the limited rights we currently have, and the one currently in question is the right to selectively turn on or off an AIS transceiver, or for that matter, chose only a receiver or perhaps none at all. Collision statistics do not warrant mandating the equipment, but will the ever-growing tracking infrastructure and quest for security make universal compliance mandatory?

This decision is likely to be based upon the interplay between competing factors—on one hand, a perceived need for surveillance and security, and on the other, the right to freely navigate coastal waters. Scrutinizing the innocent in order to discover the guilty has gained traction without much congressional debate. It has become standard operating procedure despite constitutional conflict and challenges to prevailing views toward liberty. For many, whatever the effort, if it lessens the likelihood of another terrorist attack, it’s worth doing. Others are less willing to abdicate freedom and personal liberty. At present, a sailor has a choice in whether or not to become a blip on the AIS display.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard
Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

Around-the-world sailor, safe-boating advocate, and former Vanderstar Chair at the U.S. Naval Academy, Practical Sailor Technical Editor Ralph Naranjo writes, speaks­­­—and occasionally rants­—on a variety of marine topics he feels passionately about.

But plans for NAIS-equipped satellites, surface ships, towers, and data buoys are on track; full scrutiny of the Maritime Domain will soon be a reality; and who will be tracked remains the big question. All it would take is one piece of legislation to make every vessel an MMSI-labeled blip on a nationwide network of security monitors. AIS will be the tracking engine, and turning on the unit could precede loosening up the dock lines. The real collision avoidance issue here is not only between vessels, but is one of philosophical values. On one side sit the advocates for freedom and liberty, and on the other those who favor security and safety at any cost.

After writing this opinion piece and contradicting my promise not to launch into a diatribe on the freedom to navigate, I hesitated to push “Send.” What changed my mind was a front-page article that appeared in my local newspaper announcing the launch of a camera- and radar-based scrutiny system for the Chesapeake Bay. The program is funded by USCG grants and is meant to make all boaters safer, add more protection to the environment, and lessen the threat from suspicious traffic—apparently NAIS is not enough. Perhaps these measures are warranted, but I can’t help thinking of Benjamin Franklin’s sage advice: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Comments (6)

As a Great Lakes pilot and deep sea captain as well as a small boat sailor, my recommendation would be to use AIS on receive only. You might consider transmitting in fog, to enhance your safety, but do not neglect your own duty to keep a lookout, follow the Colregs, and use that increasingly rare commodity, commonsense, before any electronic wonder. If a close quarter situation does develop, resolve it yourself before calling the ship involved, if at all possible. Perhaps, if we behave sensibly, we won't have to advertise our presence, passage plan, and history to all and sundry. None of it should be necessary just to avoid a collision.

Posted by: Unknown | June 11, 2013 11:10 AM    Report this comment

OK, there's many tough issues re: USA boating and homeland security plus our Rights and Responsibilites, within our Constitutional system. Yes, all private boaters should keep informed and keep communicating our "Musts and Wants" to our elected and appointed leaders. On Ralph's "rant", my initial comments are:
1- Even with his intro, this still sounded like a "rant" and is too long;
2- Suggest such article(s) boil down concerns/issues to most critical "decision statements", then boil down the key Pros & Cons for each decision.
3- Being 65, I've seen worisome changes in coastal safety and illegal drugs. I made an outline of Ralph's article, there was too much "Big Brother" rhetoric.

Posted by: John R | December 21, 2012 2:28 PM    Report this comment

Capt. Naranjo's article is very timely-actually, perhaps too late. Leaving aside such initiatives as Rescue 21, the use of MMSI, etc. which have much to recommend them (including the reduction of hoax mayday calls), the entire premise on which the American public was sold on the concept of "Homeland Security," including the establishment of the ill-begotten agency of that name, the centralization of multiple other government agencies (including the Coast Guard) under its Orwellian umbrella, and the laws passed under its influence, is a false one. We will not likely find that pleasure/charter boat use of AIS makes us any safer from terrorism-but we will find, to our sorrow, that we are in much greater danger from our own government as a result of having bought into it as a "security" measure. As we speak (or type), Congress is on the verge of re-authorizing the Orwellian-named "Patriot" Act, particularly three provisions thereof which largely gut the Fourth Amendment to our Constitution. Like AIS (which terrrorists are unlikely to use), these provisions are unlikely to guarantee our safety from terrorism, but will give the government more tools with which to track those who have committed no crimes but whose views may be outside what those in power consider "mainstream." Just as "gun control" has little if any effect on criminals-but major effects on non-criminals-these new maritime surveillance tools will be routinely evaded by those intent on doing harm. Those who feel that some of us are being "overly sensitive" or "paranoid" would do well to recall Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano's statements regarding the suspicious nature of those who: served in our current wars; those who oppose such measures as "gun control;" those who sport bumper stickers expressing support for non-mainstream candidates like Rep. Ron Paul or membership in groups like the NRA. In short, these maritime "gift horses" should definitely be looked "in the mouth-" very closely.

Posted by: Catboatfan | May 25, 2011 4:53 AM    Report this comment

AIS for safety purposes is great, but I doubt it will be useful for security measures. Foreign-flagged vessels carry the equipment mandated by their home country. For example, our Canadian-flagged sailboat must have the Canadian mandated equipment, even when in U.S. (or any other) waters. We do have an AIS transceiver by choice.

As it is, drug runners already avoid being seen, and I'm sure potential terrorists would do the same. If you purchase an AIS unit outside of the U.S., you can plug in your information, so why wouldn't terrorists put in false info to look legitimate? Then could go online and pick up the MMSI and all of the pertinent information to look like a legitimate AIS signal.

Enjoy it for the safety uses, but Homeland Security is deluded if they think this will make the American Public safer from terrorism.

Posted by: KEN G | April 5, 2011 5:37 PM    Report this comment

AIS for safety purposes is great, but I doubt it will be useful for security measures. Foreign-flagged vessels carry the equipment mandated by their home country. For example, our Canadian-flagged sailboat must have the Canadian mandated equipment, even when in U.S. (or any other) waters. We do have an AIS transceiver by choice.

As it is, drug runners already avoid being seen, and I'm sure potential terrorists would do the same. If you purchase an AIS unit outside of the U.S., you can plug in your information, so why wouldn't terrorists put in false info to look legitimate? Then could go online and pick up the MMSI and all of the pertinent information to look like a legitimate AIS signal.

Enjoy it for the safety uses, but Homeland Security is deluded if they think this will make the American Public safer.

Posted by: KEN G | April 5, 2011 5:37 PM    Report this comment

Thanks Ben,

Acceptable limits for government surveillance and how much choice sailors should have in the matter makes for a spirited discussion. As Ralph points out, the important thing is that sailors are aware of and are engaged in the ongoing conversation about what level of surveillance should be allowed--now and in the future.

Posted by: DARRELL N | March 20, 2011 9:28 PM    Report this comment

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