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Spoofed Satellite Feeds Trouble Google’s Global Fishing Watch

Illegal fishing vessels can hack their tracking systems, which causes problems for large crowdsourced satellite projects.

Spoofed Satellite Feeds Trouble Google’s Global Fishing Watch
[Photo: Flickr user Emma Forsberg]

The new Global Fishing Watch, an ambitious attempt by Google and others to monitor illegal fishing boats globally in real time, faces a technical challenge: Fishing boats operating in non-permitted territories that alter their tracking systems to mask their physical location.

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Ami Daniel, CEO of marine analytics firm Windward, told Fast Company that a new report by his company found a 59% increase in the number of ships transmitting incorrect positioning over the past two years. The company’s report alleges that Chinese fishing vessels are responsible for more than 40% of those hacked ship position reports.

The Global Fishing Watch website relies on the common Automatic Identification System (AIS) protocol used by ships at seas to broadcast their location, says Paul Woods, the lead engineer on the Global Fishing Watch project. Woods added that while the site cannot determine for sure where a vessel that’s spoofing AIS is located, Global Fishing Watch is able to keep track of ships that are spoofing by reporting on erratic AIS patterns over time and reporting on vessels that don’t make themselves “transparently trackable.” In addition, Woods noted that AIS spoofing puts vessels at much higher risk of collision with other boats.

According to Daniel, vessel crews or on-boat technicians can manually enter false longitude and latitude data into their AIS transmitters which are then uploaded to satellites as legitimate GPS data. This is commonly done by vessels engaged in illegal fishing, but the practice is also conducted by ships engaged in smuggling and covert military uses. The image below from Windward shows AIS data collected by a satellite whose range only covers the Atlantic Ocean; two ships in the Atlantic apparently spoofed their physical location as being on Mexico’s Pacific coast.


David Manthos of SkyTruth, one of the stakeholders in the Global Fishing Watch project, adds that the site is an early attempt to “Help citizens, governments, seafood distributors, and more see the big picture of global commercial fishing activity and easily determine which vessels and operators require greater scrutiny.” At the moment, Global Fishing Watch only displays information from 3,125 vessels.

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As Global Fishing Watch and other crowdsourced satellite data projects gain prominence, they’re going to encounter a problem that has previously only vexed intelligence agencies and well-financed private analysts: Sometimes, the satellite info can be simply spoofed.