This is the weak link in global security

In October 2015, a cargo ship flying a Liberian flag left Rio de Janeiro. The ship was officially bound for Portugal, but along the way, it made two unscheduled and unreported stops along the coast of Western Sahara.

According to our research, the ship was equipped with cranes that enabled it to load and discharge cargo at sea. What it took on board remains a mystery. But the area is a hub of international smuggling (weapons, drugs, undocumented passengers, etc.).

Pablo Blazquez Dominguez | Getty Images

The high seas have traditionally been wild and ungoverned, and so they remain. No entity controls or regulates the oceans. But the relaxed attitude that pervades maritime security is at variance with the crucial economic and security importance of the world's oceans. Over 90 percent of global trade is transported by sea, as are untold numbers of undocumented refugees and job seekers, and illegal fishing is a growing international phenomenon.

Perhaps most importantly in a climate of increased international terrorism, ship activity bears crucial security implications. And yet, the opaqueness of maritime activity enables any vessel to easily transport not only arms and people, but also drugs, contraband, and even smuggled oil — all critical links in the terror-supply chain.

Historically, there has been no data on ship activity while at sea. Today, maritime data sources have gone online thanks to satellites and the cloud, producing over 100 million data points a day. However, nearly all maritime data is derived from human input, making it susceptible to both error and manipulation. As a result, the opaqueness that has characterized the maritime domain for millennia remains, and the oceans, particularly the areas outside of a country's territorial waters, are a wild west.

Unsurprisingly, criminal elements are taking advantage of this lack of regulation. Vessels can easily mask their activities by employing a broad range of tactics, from changing identities to making ship-to-ship transfers of goods mid-voyage.

And, because ports serve as critical economic links, it is nearly impossible for authorities to closely inspect each vessel for fear of massive backlogs and economic repercussions. Authorities thus rely on dated methods of identifying suspicious activities at sea, such as tracking a limited number of "vessels of interest," known for past suspicious behavior.

And so, the coastline is an open backdoor through which all forms of illegal and terrorist activity can easily enter, even well-secured ports.

So, how do we close the open door?

The International Maritime Organization, a UN agency tasked with ensuring the safety and security of international shipping, mandates that all ocean-going vessels continuously transmit identifying information. However, the data protocols are weak, with no vetting mechanisms in place, making the data extremely vulnerable to human error and manipulation. By creating a global vetting mechanism, this important data source would become a far more effective tool for understanding vessel activity worldwide.

More effective maritime information-sharing programs, on a regional and international level, would help shed light on what's happening at sea. Creating a centralized, online marketplace for ship broker information would bring much-needed transparency not only to shipping, but to the world's cargo and commodity flows.

Another weakness being exploited in the maritime domain is the widespread use of flags of convenience, a practice similar to registering companies offshore. This has become an easy way for ships — and those who send them — to hide their origins and reduce regulation and scrutiny. Closely regulating the use of flags of convenience would minimize this weakness.

Data sciences allow us to transform today's massive, fragmented and unreliable data sources to create Paypal-like logs of every sea vessel's behaviors over time. With this automated and constantly-updated mapping of ship activity worldwide, security forces can shift from focusing on a limited number of already-suspected vessels to knowing what all vessels everywhere are doing in real-time.

Non-maritime intelligence organizations have realized that they need Palantir's data platform to find elusive connections among huge data sets; taxi and transportation markets have been completely transformed by Uber. If these traditional industries have changed, isn't it time for the maritime industry to evolve as well?

Commentary by Ami Daniel, a former Israeli naval officer and co-founder and CEO of maritime data and analytics firm Windward. The company is creating a real-time database of every ship at sea, aimed at helping authorities to identify suspicious activity and threats at sea.

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