A recent lawsuit filed in the U.S. by the Electronic Privacy Information Center against the U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security has sparked debate over the intrusiveness of AIS into personal privacy. The Nationwide Automatic Identification System used by the USCG and DHS collects, integrates and analyses information concerning vessels operation in waters subject to US jurisdiction. The complaints arise around the idea that AIS goes far beyond the collision avoidance mandate it was put in place for and instead collects personal information about boaters that is then shared between a variety of parties outside of just the Coast Guard.
This raises a question of where the line needs to be drawn when it comes to personal privacy and one’s safety and security when out in open water. The NAIS program was instituted in response to 9/11 as the very real threat of intrusion extended beyond attacks on soil to include the unknowns of open water. Dirty bombs making their way onto vessels had people concerned that boats were delivering more than the expected goods listed on manifests. Those dirty bombs remain a real fear, and it is widely recognized that the most effective way to deliver such a device would be on a small vessel rather than a tightly regulated large ship.
The reality today is that most small vessels are owned by everyday people like you and me, but in addition to the regular boat owner, drug smugglers and terrorists prefer these small vessels too when carrying out criminal activities. When you operate without an AIS transponder, authorities have an even harder job of discerning between your boat and those involved in illicit activities. To allow authorities to readily identify targets of interest approaching shorelines, AIS ensures your boat can be easily recognized as one that does not warrant any further investigation.
It does not help that small vessels enjoy the least regulated shipping environment and are extremely difficult to track in open waters without some form of communication system onboard. Having an AIS device on your small vessel greatly increases your chances of being found should an incident occur and you find yourself in distress at sea. The owner of the vessel is not identified in an AIS message and looking into registrations of the devices would only be done in cases where illegal behaviour occurred. Knowing who owns the vessel is not needed for collision avoidance or for search and rescue operations; vital pieces of the Coast Guard mandates for maritime safety and security.
For more information on the lawsuit, click here.