Sailboats, Pirates, and the Police State

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 01:25PM - Comments: (13)

About a year ago, we published an opinion piece by Technical Editor Ralph Naranjo that raised concerns that Automated Identification System (AIS) technology or a similar tracking system would be implemented to continually monitor recreational boats.

Still in the earliest development phase, and with no “requirement” per se in sight, the still hypothetical tracking system should not be confused with those aimed at enhancing search and rescue. It is explicitly designed as a component of a Department Homeland Security (DHS) initiative.

Electronics writer Ben Ellison delivered an interesting post last week updating on where the new tracking technology has been headed and how DHS plans to handle what it calls “uncooperative vessels,” those boaters (or potential terrorists) who don’t want to be tracked.

According to the DHS Small Business Innovations Research (SBIR) Program Portal website, 42 companies bid on a 2010 request for a small vessel monitoring solution (most large vessels are already required to have AIS). The proposal explicitly requests bids on systems that monitor cooperative and/or uncooperative vessels. Three were selected for Phase I, and of those three, it appears at least one was selected for additional Phase II funding, but it has not yet been announced.

Ellison doesn’t name any Phase II awardees, but one can deduce from his post that Technology Systems Inc. (TSI), a company in Ellison’s home state of Maine, is probably the only Phase II awardee. The company’s “Smart Chart AIS” proposal is the only one among the three Phase I awardees that offers a “voluntary” tracking option. The three Phase I awardees are listed at the top of this table under the topic labeled number H-SB011.1-011.

Ellison, who is a proponent of this technology, tells us we should all be happy to know that the awardee’s technology focuses strictly on “cooperative” vessels. The system, he declares, can be of great “benefit to us boaters!” (His exclamation points, not mine.)

I won't be an easy convert. In my view, the government already has enough ways to track my comings and goings, and I suppose I can learn to live with these. But my boat always has been a more sacred and personal space.

Voluntary programs find a way of becoming required, and as I reflected on a future when a person can no longer step aboard his sailboat and fall off the map, I began to wonder whether this new floating creation, forever held in the gaze of the state, will even qualify as a boat.

Call it what you want, but such a thing would not be a boat. Not in my mind, and certainly not in the eyes of writers and thinkers who've helped shaped the iconic American image for freedom: a man (or woman) alone in a boat at the sea. (E.B. White, Whitman, Thoreau, Winslow Homer, and Mark Twain immediately come to mind, as do more contemporary sailor-artists Jimmy Buffett and David Crosby.)

What will a world without boats look like?

The division here is a philosophical one, and strong opinions sprout like thistles on both sides of the fence. Perhaps the most provocative view was expressed nearly a quarter-century ago by French philosopher Michel Foucault, for whom the image of a boat at sea served as a powerful metaphor: “In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of the pirates.”



Comments (12)

This is something I got off a forum some one wrote about the guy who killed the sailor in va. last week. The killer had a twic card and got on the base

""I don't think mis-identification was the problem ... the nutjob didn't start shooting because no one knew who he was. It just shows how absurd it is to think that the TSA or any other of the Gestapo agencies can protect anyone from some whacko who gets up in the morning and decides to do something like that.

This sort of thing only proves how ridiculous and pointless the whole "security" industry has become under the promotion of the defense lobby as it is forced to retool. They won't stop until we are each escorted from our cells each morning to our place of work and guarded by some kind of robot that automatically tests for drugs, weapons, things that might become weapons, impure thoughts, and incorrect ideas.

Ah, the scent of 1930s Berlin is wafting through the hallways of Congress".

Posted by: Robert S | March 29, 2014 9:33 PM    Report this comment

"Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Benjamin Franklin

"And will lose both." Me

Yes, we can be tracked in a variety of way: email, radar (it's not passive), radios, etc. The writers who point this out are correct. I am a law-abiding citizen, so why should I care if I am being tracked?

It is because I am a law-abiding citizen that I should NOT be tracked! When I have transgressed, I should appear on DHS radar, but not before. Most definitions of a police state will include constant surveillance of the population. While much of this constitutes a "slippery slope" argument not to my taste, we are slowly beginning to accept an unprecedented level of surveillance.

i like AIS receivers and ours has saved our bacon while we've been cruising near shipping channels. We're considering a transceiver, as well.

I'll put a switch on it, though.

Posted by: AKCruiser | March 29, 2012 10:45 AM    Report this comment

I AM old enough to remember WWII, and I have also traveled and lived aboard our 39' Pearson, Mariah. We have lost many of our freedoms for a variety of reasons, many of which do not seem related to 9/11. When I renewed my driver's license, I was told I can no longer use my PO Box on the license. For 74 years I have been called by my middle name, but it is no longer allowed. My first name MUST be used on all medical and legal docs. When I had to pick up my husband's Rx for a pain killer medication after his surgery, I was told that I could not have it unless I gave them my street address. It is the law (I was told). If we still lived aboard our boat and anchored out (our preference), we would be out of luck without a street address. We could no longer drive or vote? There are video cameras in the forests to catch lawbreakers, I assume. There are cameras on street corners to catch red light runners. There are casino type cameras in the hospitals and many other businesses. Our boat is documented, so Homeland Security already knows where she lives. We have lost many of our freedoms because of people that try to bring down our wonderful country. But, in spite of that loss, it is still the very best there is. Oh, and by the way, in the seven years we traveled on our boat we only called the USCG once. They did not help us, but sent out SeaTow, whose bill we paid. The rest of the time, we took care of any problems ourselves. However, my taxes still paid to send police and fire fighters to the scenes of accidents and any other land-based catastrophe.


Posted by: MIKE W | March 29, 2012 5:22 AM    Report this comment

Geoffrey, those of us old enough to have parents who lived thru WWII have likely heard the stories of why such a thing was able to happen. People in Europe gave up their rights, for security. The reason you presumably love the country you live in, assuming it is the USA, is because we have a constitution to protect the citizenry from too much federal power. If you are willing to trade security for your rights, then you are a bystander in the American process and not a thinking participant, aware of the dangers in ceeding your rights to another. Don't be afraid. Be proud to be a free person, able to step onto the bridge of your boat, in spite and maybe even because of the danger involved with going out on the ocean in a small boat. What is next, mandatory sailing helmets?
Before you think my diatribe has no gas, I lost a childhood friend who worked in the trade center. I also spent 5 years in the USCG. I don't believe the possible security gain is worth handing over my rights, no matter how much I love and trust my government. You need to think beyond this immediate situation, and think about ifmthi, what is next.

Posted by: BRIAN O | March 28, 2012 6:11 PM    Report this comment

Login to websites or email? You can be tracked. Use a phone? You can be tracked. Use a credit or debit card? You can be tracked. Step outside? You can be tracked. While I am disappointed DHS has anything to do with this (and that DHS and the US police state exist), AIS is not needed for the government to track you. Especially in a boat, which is exposed to unobstructed vision and site for long distances, it would be very easy to keep track of someone without AIS.

Posted by: DAMON L | March 28, 2012 5:36 PM    Report this comment

Another step closer to the totalitarian state, which should be read along with the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), also known as the Homeland Battlefield Bill.

Posted by: LEN M | March 28, 2012 2:21 PM    Report this comment

I can think of a number of valid legal reasons why one would not want to be tracked - a prize fishing spot, or dive site to name just two. Keep in mind, if the government can track you it will be only a short time before some industrious hacker makes the technology and your location available to anyone.

Mandating that you transmit a signal opens up all sorts of problems - such as when can you turn it off - outside of 7 miles, 200? Only in known pirate areas?

The proponents of such a system completely ignore the presumption of innocence.

Posted by: TIMOTHY V | March 28, 2012 12:26 PM    Report this comment

Just to head off the comments that accuse me of alarmist thinking. The nature and scope of the Phase II development, yet unfunded (although this seems to be a mere formality), has not been detailed to me. As soon as the details are released, I'll post links here. It might very well be some very limited approach that I could live with. DHS is, for the moment it seems, only funding research in tracking small vessels who want to be tracked, although the Phase I funding did include systems for watching "non-cooperative" vessel. One assumes, however, the Phase II technology for "co-operative" vessels could be at some point be universally applied--and might have to be in order to be truly effective. Getting such a universal system approved would likely spark an uproar, and it might never see the light of day, but it is important that boaters be aware that their tax dollars are funding this sort of research. Given the trajectory of this program, it does not seem alarmist to consider the larger consequences if such a tracking system were ever enabled and what it says about our society.

Posted by: DARRELL N | March 28, 2012 11:52 AM    Report this comment

If you're not doing something illegal why are you worried about being tracked? If you are doing something illegal you need to be tracked.

Blane, you exhibit the epitome of our gimme society. You want the gov to spend thousands of dollars (of my taxes) to come rescue you but you're not willing to let the gov use your info to rescue the rest of us from terrorists.


Posted by: Geoffrey K | March 28, 2012 11:31 AM    Report this comment

AIS should only be a tool for collision avoidance -- at least for private yachts. I don't mind having a transponder aboard, but I would insist it transmits anonymously. Tracking a person on land by placing a GPS transponder on them requires a judge's warrant. At the very least the same should hold for us at sea. How can such a mandate be legal?

Posted by: oscark | March 28, 2012 10:28 AM    Report this comment

If I want to be found I will set off my epirb.


Posted by: Blane P | March 28, 2012 10:16 AM    Report this comment

When sailors talk about "getting away from it all," the operative word here is ALL, which includes the intrusion of government.

The sea is our last freedom. Uncle Sam should be left at the dock.

Posted by: David Liscio | March 27, 2012 5:16 PM    Report this comment

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