These are comments on policy for sharing information from the
U.S. Coast Goard’s NAIS, a network of 140 AIS receivers covering
U.S. coastal waters, as solicited by Federal docket USCG-2009-0701.
(The docket request for comments is here.)
First, I declare my interest. I am a lead of the GPSD project, a set of open-source software tools for collecting and processing GPS and AIS data. GPSD is extremely widely deployed on Linux and Unix systems including navigational suites, SBC telemetry packages, and cellphones. In connection with this project, I am also the editor of the most complete publicly available description of AIS/AIVDM decoding.
One goal of my work is to make access to high-quality GIS information generally available for purposes of research, day-to-day navigation, and public safety.
NAIS data is collected with tax funds. Thus, policy formulation should begin from a presumption that, absent a showing of specific unmanageable risks, the general public is entitled to free access to the data. The burden of demonstration should fall on those advocating restrictions rather than openness.
The policy I advocate is complete openness: that all data collected by NAIS should be made available in real time as an AIVDM stream via a Internet public feed at a stable and documented address.
1. How might providing real-time, near real-time, or historical NAIS information to the public impact maritime commerce?
Accurate and timely information is the life-blood of commerce. In the past, increases in the information richess of the environment in which market actors make decisions have shown a strong tendency to promote economic activity of all kinds, help markets clear more rapidly, and increase average wealth levels.
I see no reason for general publication of NAIS information to be an exception. I cannot predict what specific business strategies or tactics it will enable, but I think the precedent of GPS provides strong reason for optimism.
2. What would be the impact of providing this information, if any,
on the following?
a. Safety of ships and passengers or crew,
b. Security of ships and their cargo,
I do not anticipate a safety or security impact.
The substantial safety benefits of AIS in navigational and collision avoidance systems are readily collected by LOS (line-of-sight) use through local receivers. Ship velocities are low enough that non-LOS information over an Internet feed is not generally relevant in real time.
In the past, there has been some concern that Internet publication of AIS data might enable commerce-raiding, piracy or terrorism via non-LOS monitoring of ship locations. But in no conditions short of major war would commerce-raiding or piracy be an issue for the NAIS coverage area (U.S. coastal and inland waterways). And terrorists, unlike national governments, do not generally have the ability to throw cruise missiles over the horizon. Thus I conclude that the risk from publishing real-time ship locations in the NAIS coverage area is effectively nil in peacetime conditions.
c. Economic advantage or disadvantage to commercial stakeholders,
I see no disadvantage to anyone in a policy of open publication. Because Internet access is unreliable and expensive at sea and AIS receivers are cheap, substitution of real-time NAIS data for local receivers seems unlikely.
UPDATE: Commercial AIS providers object to open publication of NAIS data, but it is no part of the USCG’s mission to protect their business models at taxpayer expense. If they can offer a substantial value-add over information collected with taxpayer dollars, let them survive; if they cannot, let them fail.
A policy of unrestricted public access ensures that any commercial advantages will be symmetrically distributed without favor. Conversely, restrictions on the data would advantage large players with the resources to jump through bureaucratic hoops and/or good political connections — not a good outcome.
d. Environmental impact on extractable resources or coastal activities.
Difficult to call. On the one hand, open publication of NAIS data would probably increase general activity levels slightly, with concomitant slightly increased environmental risk. On the other hand, AIS is already being used for risk mitigation, e.g. by broadcasting whale pod locations. More general availability of such data might head off specific and serious environmental harms.
3. Is information collected by the NAIS considered sensitive?
I do not believe NAIS information should be considered sensitive in peacetime conditions.
a. Is real-time or near real-time information collected by the NAIS
viewed differently than historical NAIS information, and if so, how?
Historical NAIS information presents not even the minimal (wartime) risks of real-time informstion.
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?
As previously noted, open access would make asymmetrical commercial advantage impossible.
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?
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
4. What controls on sharing real-time, near real-time, or
historical information collected by the NAIS with the public are
General publication with no controls whatsoever would be the simplest, fairest, and least expensive policy.
a. Who should receive each type of NAIS information?
In the absence of wartime threats to U.S. littoral waters, all NAIS information should be made generally available in real time on a stable public Internet feed.
b. What are appropriate uses of information collected by the NAIS?
Research. Maritime traffic analysis. Robustness testing of AIS decoders.
c. Do message types matter?
I see no reason to complicate policy or implementation by distinguishing among message types. Publish them all and let the applications sort it out.
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?
I see no reason to restrict access to addressed messages. Though addressed, the technological substrate of AIS is such that they are public broadcasts with no expectation of privacy. Privacy concerns are properly addressed via message encryption, which AIS readily supports.
UPDATE: I have added, in my resubmission of 16 Feb, a paragraph on why the USCG should not shield commercial AIS providers