Freedom and Security: The Dilemma of Vessel Tracking

Improved vessel automated identification systems can help avoid collisions, prevent attacks

It was originally set up to provide a database of merchant vessels at sea in the wake of the Titanic, when it was highlighted that some of the ships in the region could have rendered assistance if they had been made aware of the sinking.

A key question is what role the ship owner or manager will have in providing this information and then who has access to it. A recent IMO committee decided that if long-range tracking became compulsory, the ship should not have to pay and the data should be available to the flag state and next port of call.

However, the discussion continues as to when the port state receives the data and, more controversially, whether the countries that a ship is passing, but not calling at, gets the identity and position of vessels off its coast. Often called the 'state of innocent passage', some claim that for environmental and security reasons they should be able to monitor them.

The commandant of the Norwegian Coast Guard, Geir Osen, believes these so-called states of innocent passage should have access, adding: 'Coastal states have national and international responsibilities in the EEZ and on the continental shelf in relation to safety, security and the environment.

'Countries like Norway have, for example, a number of offshore oil and gas installations more than 100 nautical miles from its coastline and would therefore benefit from being able to track all ships which may be a threat to such installations.'

The cost of this information should be borne by all, contends Gunnar Stolsvik, head of the Norwegian Coast Guard's Legal Section.

He says: 'If coastal states have a need for such information, and we believe many states will feel that way, they will have to pay for it. Unless states are willing to pay for such information, an international LRIT system will probably never be established.'

What has yet to be determined is who manages this data, coming from every vessel at sea. Who will manage this mass of data and how will the IMO ensure the data is kept secure?

In fact, should there be an oversight body an approved independent organisation capable of enforcing the rules and ensuring the data is given to the right organisation? Some think the International Mobile Satellite Organisation should take this role, others say it should be a consortium or shared between nation states.

Valeriy Bogdanov, director-general of Russian satellite provider Morsvyazsputnik, says: 'Oversight for LRIT requires very exact definition and delineation with the LRIT Co-ordinator.

'I think that the LRIT Co-ordinator function as defined in the Comsar document will be enough to cover co-ordination and oversight and reporting to IMO. Otherwise the system becomes too bureaucratic and costly.'

In today's world, where one can go online, download Google Earth and see an aerial picture of vessels entering harbour, where almost any data is available though there may be a price tag in a world where the concern from the US authorities, or any authority with the fear of a national threat, is that of a rogue ship with a crude intercontinental ballistic missile, the IMO has every reason to take this argument seriously.

But is this integration of AIS and long-range tracking, the provision of a completely global ability to track and position every ship, a step towards totalitarian data control? The control and access to this data will have many uses.

Data is power, but is complete data, complete power, completely corruptible or trustworthy? The proof will come only when all members of the IMO agree on who should have access to the data and when they should get it.