Tuesday, February 16, 2010

USCG Request For Comment on NAIS data release

I just submitted this to the USCG's RFC 2010-632. I hope everybody who has a stake in this has submitted comments. I am sure that I will frustrate some with these comments, but I strongly believe that getting raw feeds to as many as possible is critical. There are competing commercial interests, but my end goal is to find the best ways to support mariners getting their jobs done and those who manage the water ways to keep marine use rolling (err... steaming). This includes protection, monitoring, and restoration of the environment. How do we make business, the environment, and safety all work well together? It's a challenge that might not be easy, but it's worth the effort.

I strongly encourage people to comment here or anywhere else the discussion is going on. If you don't agree with what I've written, I would like to hear it

NAIS data release policies for the USCG

Response to RFC
Docket No. USCG-2009-0701
by Kurt Schwehr


These comments are by Kurt Schwehr and only represent my personal opinions. These do not represent the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping, the Joint Hydrographic Center, the University of New Hampshire, the RTCM, NOAA, the USCG, or any other organizations with which I work.

First, a brief summary of my experience with AIS: I have worked with AIS since 2006 and have been a member of the RTCM SC121 working group on Expanded AIS for VTS. I have worked with Class A transceivers, Class B transceivers, Basestations, ATON transceivers, and receive only units (including terrestrial, shipborne, and space-based). As a part of my work with NOAA, I have been receiving realtime NAIS for over one year and from the USCG RDC development network starting in 2006. I helped initiate the creation of the Area Notice binary message that is being used to transmit acoustic detections of right whale calls off of Boston, MA.


My overall opinion is that the only increased risk from releasing raw AIS data comes from the economic impact to those who are trying to sell AIS feeds. Outside of the 3 or 4 groups doing Satellite based AIS, I don't think these companies should get protection. There is already stiff competition, e.g. AIS Hub will give you AIS data for free if you contribute back at least a little bit of data. AIS receivers start from about $190. The real value comes from interpretation - analysis and display of these feeds. More access to AIS data means to me that we will get more people involved in analysis and it will speed the uptake of AIS binary messages. As for security, if the USCG needs to keep this data restricted as sensitive, then it should not have been broadcast in the clear to start with. Hiding addressed messages is strange when anyone with a receiver and gpsd can see most of these addressed messages anyway.

Comments / responses as organized in the RFC


We request your general comments on the applicability and levels of
the sharing of information collected by the NAIS, the definition of
historical NAIS information, and any commercial or security
sensitivities with respect to sharing of information collected by the

The key aspect of AIS is that this is a public broadcast technology. Anyone with a receiver in the area is permitted to receive any message at any time without restrictions. There is no copyright associated with these broadcasts. Therefore, placing any restrictions requiring USCG or DHS personnel to protect this public data is unnecessary and places an extra burden and cost of time and money on the USCG. Protecting already public data does not make sense. Messages that are sensitive are already encrypted in the blue force / Hawkeye system. If there is sensitive data being broadcast, these transmissions are inappropriate for AIS.

The NAIS system is paid for with public money and is intended to benefit the public. Public broadcast of AIS messages over the VHF marine channels is mandated by IMO and the USCG. There is no notion of privacy in the system (with the exception of blue force encrypted military transmissions).

1. How might providing real-time, near real-time, or historical NAIS information to the public impact maritime commerce?

Understanding how US waterways are used and have historically been used is critically important for anyone involved in any of these categories:

  • Operating ships
  • Managing the movement of vessels while not on board (e.g. shoreside management or VTS type operations)
  • Search and rescue (SAR)
  • Protecting and allocating marine resources (Coastal & Marine Spatial Planning / CMSP)
  • Emergency response
  • Restoration of marine resources

Analysts in public, private, and academic environments can benefit from the availability of AIS. An important concept to remember is that with any new technology, we cannot predict all of the new uses that will be valuable to at least some segment of the community.

2. What would be the impact of providing this information, if any, on the following?

a. Safety of ships and passengers or crew,

There would be no negative impacts on safety. This data is already public and can be had through a range of commercial and non-commercial services. Anyone with a receiver or access to a service can already get this data.

Greater access to AIS data would allow all involved access to analyze events and usage levels of navigable waters. Hopefully more researchers will use AIS to investigate the causes of incidents and work towards improved mariner training.

b. Security of ships and their cargo,

These messages are already broadcast in the clear for anyone to receive, such that there are no negative impacts from releasing this through N-AIS. If ship position and cargo are at risk, then these should be encrypted at the broadcast level or not transmitted at all.

c. Economic advantage or disadvantage to commercial stakeholders,

The only real negative impact would be for commercial groups selling AIS feeds. However, these companies are competing against groups like AIS Hub, where access is given to all who share their own local data. The one area that currently needs to be grown with protections is the space-based AIS companies (S-AIS). Their costs are high and the maritime community needs these companies to succeed to provide coverage where land based receivers cannot reach.

The competitive advantage for AIS providers comes not from the AIS raw data, but from the value added to the data stream through analysis, filtering, and presentation of what is going on in water ways and what trends exist.

The gains are likely negligible to moderate for most commercial enterprises. Most large companies are not likely change whether or not they are analyzing AIS data. N-AIS data release might encourage more stakeholders to undertake AIS analysis, thereby spurring innovation.

d. Environmental impact on extractable resources or coastal activities.

Increased access to AIS data through N-AIS data release, will likely improve the use of AIS for protecting the environment and understanding the impact for maritime uses on the environment. AIS is likely to the backbone of Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning (CMSP) and is critical to effective environmental response to incidents in the maritime environment.

3. Is information collected by the NAIS considered sensitive?

In general, nothing in the raw data feeds from NAIS should be considered sensitive. The raw data is purely data that has been broadcast in the clear. The key is that all sensitive data must be encrypted before broadcasting. Passing this information through NAIS leaves the data encrypted.

a. Is real-time or near real-time information collected by the NAIS viewed differently than historical NAIS information, and if so, how?

No. Since all broadcasts are done in the clear.

b. Does the sharing of information collected by the NAIS generate concern about unfair commercial advantage? If so, for which segments of the industry is this a concern?

There should be no unfair commercial advantage. The data is already publicly broadcast by ships and it is up to companies to decide if and how they want to use this information, whether it be from NAIS, commercial providers, non-profit groups, or their own ship/shore based receivers.

c. Is there a timeframe within which real-time or historical information collected by the NAIS is considered sensitive or is no longer considered sensitive?

There is no timeframe in which the data should be considered sensitive as it is initially broadcast over public channels.

d. Given that ships last for decades and that their capabilities and capacities are relatively stable, is there a concern that historical NAIS information might be analyzed to derive a competitive advantage?

This data is already broadcast publicly. NAIS will make no difference on whether or not companies choose to use this information (which currently is often incorrect).

4. What controls on sharing real-time, near real-time, or historical information collected by the NAIS with the public are suitable?

a. Who should receive each type of NAIS information?

The data is already publicly broadcast for anyone to receive. Therefore, why should it be restricted?

b. What are appropriate uses of information collected by the NAIS?

Any legal use. These uses range from general Coastal & Marine Spatial Planning (CSMP), resource use, needs for dredging, hydrographic survey planning, risk analysis of collision and groundings, allocation of infrastructure improvements, controlling loads on port facilities and docks, pollution control, estimating best times for activities in ports and waterways (maintenance, port entry, etc), situational awareness, search and rescue (SAR), vessel traffic analysis, predicting arrival times, monitoring RF propagation and noise conditions, incident analysis, detecting unusual ship behavior (e.g. engine failure), reselling modified feeds with value added, and many more.

c. Do message types matter?

No. These are publicly broadcast messages.

d. Should addressed messages be handled differently from broadcast messages? Do addressed messages contain information significant to understanding maritime activity? Should addressed messages be shared with the public?

No. These messages are broadcast publicly without encryption. Anybody with a receiver and appropriate software (e.g. GPSD) can decode and read these messages. The goal of an addressed message is not privacy, but to direct information to a vessel. If a private message is required, some other means of communications should be used with appropriate encryption.