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Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Yet again things are just not that straightforward - not a reason to dismiss out of hand though.

Last week, Google, Oceana and SkyTruth announced they were launching a battle against overfishing everywhere. A noble pursuit, Global Fishing Watch combines interactive mapping technology and satellite data with the all-important Automatic Identification System (AIS) transmissions every tanker, passenger ship and commercial vessel above a certain size is mandated by the UN to send. Global Fishing Watch then visualises the routes taken, to show when a fishing boat strays into or lingers in waters it shouldn't.

The only problem, maritime analytics company Windward tells us, is that any vessel engaging in illegal activities is gaming the system and manipulating AIS data. We can't rely on what we're seeing.

"Until 2012, AIS data was super reliable because it wasn't commoditised. Nobody had it, so no one needed to clean the data or check it," Ami Daniel, a former naval officer and cofounder of Windward, tells WIRED.co.uk. "Two years, there was suddenly so much data out there, so many open source portals like marinetraffic.com providing free access to [vessel positions] for everybody. People understood they were being looked at. Once that happened, spontaneously different industries started to manipulate the data."

According to a report by Windward that looked at AIS data from mid-2013 to mid-2014, there has been a 59 percent increase in GPS manipulations. From July 2012 to August 2014, that data also showed:

Final ports of call were reported only 41 percent of the time 1 percent of all ships used a fake identifying number (IMO) over the past year A quarter of all vessels switch off their AIS at least 10 percent of the time Windward is crunching AIS data -- the more than 100m shipping data points produced every day -- and satellite imagery with its algorithms, taking into account the aforementioned manipulations and comparing these against past behaviours, home ports and vessel ownership, as well as general trading patterns and economic profiles. Its software calculates how urgent the erroneous data stream is, then alerts its clients to the fact. These include oil and gas companies in South America and West Africa and governments in South East Asia and West Africa. Interested parties include navies, as well as national intelligence agencies.

There are many reasons a vessel would choose to manipulate its AIS transmissions. At the most serious end of the spectrum are the illegal activities. "The UN found a super strong connection between fishing and smuggling and terrorism," Daniel tells us. "Fishing vessels have defacto authorisation to enter any point they want in the world because the fishing industry is a global one. So it's not irregular for a vessel to go from Africa to Europe. Yet everything they do in open seas in between is unaccountable."

Human trafficking and smuggling are two of the most worrying reasons for manipulations. Then there are plenty of economics ones -- the vessels Google and co are trying to track, which are engaging in overfishing or fishing in restricted regions for profit. According to Windward's report, Chinese fishing vessels account for 44 percent of all GPS manipulations. "They want to fish wherever they want," says Daniel.

Read the full story from Wired.co.uk here: