Hash and pirates: how AI is cleaning up the high seas



On August 8, 2021, Spanish police and customs officials intercepted the cargo ship NATALIA on suspicion of drug trafficking. The ship was en route from Lebanon via Iskenderun, Turkey to Lagos, Nigeria, and hidden on board were nearly 20 tons of hashish worth $470 million.

That may sound like the opening scene of an action movie, but it’s the kind of event that happens more often than you’d expect on the high seas. Drug smuggling, illegal fishing and piracy are constant threats. Following a number of recent piracy incidents in the Gulf of Aden, Iran, Russia and China have recently launched naval and air exercises to counter piracy at sea. The problem is that these crimes are very difficult to trace and control.

How can countries effectively monitor their seas to combat piracy and other marine-based criminal activities more efficiently?

Maybe it’s because I live on a sailboat with my family, but I’m fascinated by the evolving efforts to monitor our oceans in an increasingly complex law enforcement paradigm. Not surprisingly, artificial intelligence is a tool increasingly used for the challenging task of keeping the seas (and global trade) safe.

The NATALIA is a great example and telling case study for a company called Windward, which used risk models to detect criminal activity through markers such as deviant loitering. In this case, Windward helped European authorities intercept a ship carrying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of illegal drugs.

To learn more about the use of AI in maritime law enforcement, I reached out to Ami Daniel, co-founder and CEO of Windward, who believes AI modeling can help countries understand the state of the sea, enabling them to make better decisions. can take based on data. Taking into account the behavior of each individual vessel, the type of cargo on board, ports and docks visited in the past, sailing routes, cruising speed and more, it is possible to use AI models to predict whether a vessel is engaged with unauthorized behavior.

GN: What is the current state of global marine monitoring? Which technologies are most used today and where are the shortcomings?

Friend Daniel: In general, most global responses to maritime crime are reactive, with governments acting only when an event becomes relevant to their domain. If a crime takes place in international waters, most countries will shift responsibility and not see it as a priority until it approaches their borders. Comprehensive Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) – defined by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) as the understanding of anything related to the maritime domain that may affect security, safety, economics or the environment – is essential to the tackling maritime problems. However, a physical maritime presence is not nearly enough to guard a country’s shores, much less the entire sea.

At any given time, there are $14T worth of cargo, hundreds of millions of containers and more than 50km of merchant ships in use at sea that global authorities need to be aware of. These authorities face many challenges, ranging from information overload, an incomplete picture of all ships at sea and related counterparties, and fragmented data in protecting their maritime borders from illegal activity. There is also inherent confusion in maritime trade, with complex ownership structures, geopolitical tensions and deep interdependencies.

Currently, the main tool for MDA is Automatic Identification Systems (AIS), which is essentially a mandatory GPS for ships relaying their location. However, AIS is prone to manipulation, both by individual ships and by governments, as China did in November last year. Ships can disable their AIS, for both legitimate and illegal purposes, making it incredibly difficult to determine where a ship is at any given time. Adding to this complexity is a new method of deceptive shipping practices discovered by Windward last year called GNSS manipulation, where bad actors can fake their location so that their AIS signal is sent from a completely different location somewhere around the world. The discovery, widely covered, has huge implications for global and national security and shows how nefarious actors are upgrading their sanctions evasion techniques from low-tech deceptive shipping practices to military-grade technologies and electronic warfare tactics.

In light of these advances, legacy methods of MDA are not enough. To protect borders and businesses, organizations and law enforcement agencies must take a proactive approach to maritime crime.

GN: What is at stake if nations are unable to effectively guard their oceans?

Friend Daniel: Nations are faced with countless maritime risks. The vastness of the waters and the relative isolation of ships passing through the ocean make maritime crime attractive to criminals. Among the risks facing governments if they cannot effectively control their oceans are sanctions evasion and drug smuggling. Trafficking in human beings is a serious human rights problem and, like drug smuggling, much of it takes place at sea. We hear heartbreaking news stories of ships crammed with people being transported around the world. Labor trafficking is the effective equivalent of modern slave labour, another important issue that has not been given enough attention. Maritime workers endure inhumane conditions, sometimes working 20-hour workdays, seven days a week for little to no pay.

There are also environmental risks that can arise when countries are unable to effectively monitor their territorial waters. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, which has both environmental and geopolitical impacts, accounts for about $23.5 billion worth of seafood per year, about 1 in 5 fish taken from the ocean. In addition, while the huge number of oil spills is decreasing every year, the environmental damage incurred is still enormous and in February 2021 there was an oil spill off the coast of Israel. Windward was able to work with the government to eventually identify the culprit, but with effective monitoring, the spill could have been detected much earlier, with a smaller impact on the environment.

GN: Predictive policing and enforcement largely depend on accurate training sets, right? What types of data are used to train your AI monitoring solution? How can errors be mitigated to avoid false positives?

Friend Daniel: Windward’s algorithms are built on more than a decade of ship behavior analysis and are powered by advanced AI technology, trained on behavioral analysis models and more than 10 billion data points. To create accurate models, Windward uses a variety of data sources, including data from ships, ports and flag registers, combined with satellite data, AIS data, weather data and more.

Windward’s maritime expertise and comprehensive ship analysis reduces the risk of false positives by a factor of 4 compared to traditional ship survey methods. The platform screens, searches and analyzes dynamic data to connect the dots and discover potential risks. By continuously applying behavioral analysis models, Windward’s solution provides dynamic Predictive Intelligence based on vessel identity, cargo visibility, ownership structures, actual location and travel patterns that is accurate and effective, empowering authorities to ‘go-no-go’ make decisions.

GN: Has your system been deployed effectively? Can you indicate where and how and what the results are?

Friend Daniel: Windward has several public sector clients, including the UN Security Council; the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); the US Coast Guard; Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency; the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre-Narcotics (MAOC (N)), an EU law enforcement unit created to respond to the threat of illicit drug trafficking via sea and air transport; the Caribbean Community Implementing Agency for Crime and Security (CARICOM IMPACS); the Israeli Navy; and the Indian Navy

Windward’s platform is also used to monitor Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an international organization with a mission to protect all marine life.

While we cannot disclose the internal investigations of authorities using Windward’s technology, we can provide specific case studies that are publicly available (see case study

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