Google’s Global Fishing Watch is using manipulated data (Wired UK)


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 “Two years, there was suddenly so much
data out there, so many open source portals like
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

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

  • Final ports of call were reported only 41 percent of the
  • 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.

Global Fishing Watch
Global Fishing Watch

It’s also well known that there is a high demand for things like rhino horns and ivory in
, and that that demand is a key reason the illegal
export trade in Africa has accelerated in recent years. It’s
interesting, then, to look at one of the visualisations Windward
has created from its analysis. It shows a vessel turning on its AIS
data somewhere off the south coast of Mexico. It then reappears
near Chile, then bizarrely crops up in the middle of Antarctica,
well and truly landlocked, before curving up and heading to China.
It’s so clearly doctored, but what’s interesting is how it was
doctored. Daniel says a common tactic among crews is to log GPS
stats that show you’re a few thousands kilometres south or north of
where you actually are. Looking at this particular example, the
vessel heading for China appears to have made a route that
perfectly mirrors the outline of South Africa, just a few thousand
kilometres south. Daniel says crews have been “crossing the
cables”, or physically connecting them to a computer and using
software to manipulate the GPS coordinates.

There’s plenty that can be manipulated. The data sent through
AIS includes longitude and latitude, speed, course, rate of turn,
depth, its unique signifier (IMO) and more. Each manipulation might
suggest a different reason, and that’s what Windward is working to
reveal with its algorithms. Altering the depth, for instance,
betrays that you are carrying either less or more (in weight) than
you should be, and could mean a number of things.


The existence of something like Global Fishing Watch, is
inarguably a good thing. It isn’t claiming to be battling human
trafficking accurately, but shedding light on what is a huge global
issue. It focuses purely on fishing vessels, with its first
interactive map featuring 3,125 ships, and their 35 million data
points collected over 2013-2014. Oceana has referred to the tool as
“groundbreaking”, and it is certainly helping shed some light and
transparency on the problem, the point being vessels are
incentivised to show they are fishing appropriately and where they
should be.

The issue is, Global Fishing Watch is absolutely using AIS for a
mission in was never prepared for. When the UN agency International
Maritime Organisation mandated that every vessel turn on and use
its AIS in 2002, it was purely for safety reasons. The data is
transmitted back and forth between vessels that might be near each
other, to ensure collisions are avoided — and it’s doing a good
job of this all these years. In these instances, perhaps when your
vessel is traversing a strait, the longitude and latitude is
transmitted every few seconds. Many of the other data points are
transmitted intermittently and manually. As Daniel puts it, “you
don’t have to be sophisticated at all in many cases — you just
punch in the code”. So despite AIS being mandated, the world’s
oceans are essentially operating on what Daniel describes as “an
honour system”.

The obvious issue facing Global Fishing Watch is that
the very vessels overfishing the waters are the ones that will be
working to hide their tracks. In fact, it will only be the
inadvertent errors made by commercial and government vessels, and
the very foolish behaviour of oblivious ill-doers, that will be
caught out by Global Fishing Watch. It is only watching those that
want to be seen.

In an interview with our sister site,, Oceana’s VP for
the US, Jackie Savitz, admitted that false reasing were
an issue, but that its model “can detect erratic AIS
transmissions”. “If we see pings from a vessel every hour for a
month, then it goes silent, but suddenly comes back on weeks later,
we can pick that up and possibly trigger enforcement against them
for not transmitting as they are supposed to.” The problem, as
Windward points out, is that crews are becoming more savvy to the
various AIS manipulations they can make — it’s not as easy as
looking for those switching off any more. In fact, few would use
this tactic as it is a rather obvious red flag.

So how can we even begin to stem this problem? Windward could be
just one part of the solution, and in years to come as satellites
become more cost effective, and there are more of them, we will
have better data to attack the problem. In the meantime though,
it’s more about raising awareness to keep pace with those becoming
savvy enough to game the system on a daily basis.

One stat might go a way in helping that push.

The Windward report compares the fact that 1 percent of ships
are using fake IMO numbers (a 30 percent rise on the previous
year), to airport security. 1 percent is equal to several hundred
vessels being “‘in disguise’ at any given time”, which is “akin to
having over 1,000 people going through John F. Kennedy
International Airport each day using fake IDs”. In the context of
airport safety and customs regulations, that figure would be
staggering and totally unacceptable. Apply it to the open seas and
suddenly the limits of our acceptance, is vastly lowered. Of course
port authorities have a certain degree of responsibility and
control. But just as we discovered when Ebola screening was first
suggested for airports and ports, it would be virtually impossible
to check every ship that comes to UK shores.

One way of bringing more attention to the problem, is to get the
world of finance involved. And that’s exactly what Windward hopes
to do. Daniel points that 90 percent of the world’s trade happens
at sea, and most of our commodities are transported that way. And
while crude imports in 2013 were estimated to be worth around
$2,823 billion (£1.8bn) — half of which were transported by sea –
Windward points that “the financial trading on this volume is
estimated to be nine times larger than the transport value”.
Financial trading models take into account things like commodity
flows, and the false data could be leading to costly distortions.
One of the reasons oil tankers might hide their positions or
depths, Windward postulates, would be to impact global oil

The reach of this problem is vast and winding. As
such, Daniel believes he and his 30-strong team has found the last
“Wild West”. He refers to this phrase over and over, and it’s clear
why. The technology revolution has crept up on every sector, its
wildfire turning even the most traditional of industries on its
head. Considering the planet is made up of 70 percent water –
water being traversed by more than 200,000 AIS-fitted vessels
everyday, from the smallest of fishing boats to cruise liners –
the fact that an accurate representation of activity on our seas
escapes us, seems incredible.

“It’s one of the reasons I get up in morning everyday,” says
Daniel. “This isn’t just another app — this is something huge.
This is all ocean trades. No one knows what’s happening there, and
therefore we think it’s one of the last analogue domains waiting to
be digitised. There’s going to be a very big change. But we have to
do it well, with the right data — or there will only be more

AIS is the industry standard — it’s reliable for the purpose
it’s designed for. For everything else, we need to make sure we are
gaming the system too.

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21 November 2014 | 3:06 pm – Source:


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