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NIAS Fortnightly on Science, Technology & International Relations
COVER STORY: Improved Maritime Situational Awareness:

  STIR Team

Vol 1, No. 16, 22 February 2022

Cover Story
By Hema Karnam
Improved Maritime Situational Awareness:
Securing the Automatic Identification System (AIS)
Maritime safety and security have been gaining increasing importance in recent years.  The Automatic Identification System (AIS) was introduced to monitor maritime traffic and improve maritime domain awareness. However, the AIS has numerous security vulnerabilities, making it prone to various types of attacks; for example, spoofing, jamming, and hijacking, as was highlighted in the recent spoofing incidents in Shanghai and Elba Island in 2019. Spoofing incidents have the potential to cause catastrophic consequences on marine trading and commerce; it is vital to study the security vulnerabilities and possible mitigation measures to counter these vulnerabilities, making the AIS more secure.

The Automatic Identification System (AIS) monitors maritime traffic and is primarily used as a tracking system. Its other benefits include collision avoidance, search and rescue alerts, accident investigations and aids in navigation. The AIS was first introduced by the International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO) - Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention in 2002 as a mandatory installation for all international voyaging ships weighing over three hundred tonnes and all passenger ships, regardless of their size. The estimated number of vessels that use AIS is currently around 300,000; it is predicted to cross a million installations in the future.
AIS Communication details

The AIS transponder works by exchanging information with other Vessel Traffic Services (VTS). A VTS is a ship traffic monitoring system similar to the air traffic control system used in aviation. The AIS information that is transmitted includes dynamic information about a vessel’s current position, speed, course, and static information such as the vessel type, name, cargo, the MMSI - a nine-digit unique identifier for every AIS transponder/vessel. The idea behind this up-to-date information exchange is to improve navigational safety and avoid collisions in the often-chaotic sea lanes and thereby improve maritime situational awareness. Additionally, the AIS supposedly provides a better and reliable electronic picture of surrounding sea vessels than a RADAR in bad weather, sea state or visibility conditions.
The AIS works by exchanging information on two Very High Frequency (VHF) radio channels operating at frequencies 161.975 MHz and 162.025 MHz. According to the International Telecommunication Union – Radio Communication (ITU-R) sector, these over the air transmissions are standardised. The VHF data link is accomplished through a Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) scheme. Online AIS providers also collect AIS data and transmit it over the internet. The AIS data is collected using AIS gateways deployed geographically. Additionally, AIS data can be uploaded by the ship captains to the online providers using Mobile apps and special forwarding software.
The AIS data is reported with a varying transmission rate ranging from a couple of seconds for dynamic data to a few minutes for static data. The dynamic data is automatically fed in from the ship’s GPS unit, whereas the static data is manually set up and maintained by the vessel operators. Currently, two types of AIS transponders exist - class A for larger vessels and class B for smaller fishing boats or pleasure crafts.
Issues and Challenges of AIS

AIS was designed during an era when there were not as many security breaches as they are today, and the AIS design did not incorporate adequate security mechanisms. The US Coast Guard Navigation Centre (NAVCEN) webpage states that “AIS by design, is an open, non-proprietary, unencrypted, unprotected radio system, intended to operate on non-secure VHF-FM channels. So technically it can be spoofed - so trust but verify”. As the AIS messages are transmitted on public radio frequencies, anyone with a simple Software Defined Radio (SDR) and VHF antenna transmit or receive these AIS messages. Also, malicious adversaries can modify the AIS data while it is en route due to its insecure design.
As the ITU and the IMO SOLAS standards do not implicitly provide some of the fundamental security principles such as message confidentiality, integrity, and authenticity, malicious adversaries can easily exploit the vulnerabilities in the AIS design and its implementation protocol to disrupt and/or deny the AIS message transmission that can lead to attacks. The attacks can be carried out both at the software implementation level and/or during transmission over radio frequencies. An overview of some example attacks and their possible implications that have been evaluated and implemented are discussed below.
Types of threats
In this type of threat, an adversary impersonates a valid ship and assigns fictitious ship static information such as the vessel's name, type, flag, cargo, MMSI, manufacture, and dynamic information such as speed position course, and destination to a non-existent ship. This type of attack can be carried out at both the software and radio frequency levels.
In the software-based threats, the software that the AIS online providers use to upstream data is targeted by malicious adversaries to reference using an application layer protocol called AIVDM is employed. However, due to the security issues with the implementation of upstreaming the data by the online providers, any software tool can generate arbitrary AIVDM sentences that can be forwarded by any user to the AIS online providers. Due to the loosely implemented nature of the AIS receivers, the AIS providers often accept any data that they receive. Additionally, there is no source vetting involved. Therefore, there is no way to verify that the message received originated from a valid ship at the supposed location, which can cause serious security issues by violating the authenticity of the actual sender. Maritime traffic can also be spoofed by sending preformatted email reports with purported AIS information to the online providers.
In radio frequency-based threats, an adversary can build an AIS transmitter using an SDR and implement these attacks by generating arbitrary AIVDM messages and transmitting them via air. The spoofing scenarios described above can lead to drastic consequences, such as spoofing a vessel into the jurisdiction of an adversarial country or into restricted territorial waters or exclusive economic zones, which can escalate political tensions between rival governments. Additionally, the counterfeit information can be used by a malicious adversary to blame some other country’s vessel while carrying out illegal activities, as was recently highlighted in a report by Bloomberg, where Iranian ships used counterfeit AIS data and switched their flagged countries to Zanzibar as the US and Europe tightened sanctions over their nuclear programs.
The recent spoofing incidents observed in Shanghai and Elba Island in 2019 highlight that such spoofing or jamming attacks can result in navigational mistakes that can cause collisions or groundings and, ultimately, casualties at sea. In 2020, the Galapagos Islands, one of the world’s largest fleets of fishing nations, misreported its location (approximately 10,000 km from its observed location) to conceal illegal fishing activities in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the Galápagos Islands.
In the case of AIS hijacking, the attacker in the software-based threats modifies the AIS message arbitrarily by initiating a Man in the Middle (MiTM) attack by intercepting the messages transmitted via Air through attacker-controlled AIS gateways. Once received, the messages are modified and transmitted to the online providers using proxy servers. In the case of radio frequency-based threats, the attacker modifies the AIS message by transmitting a higher powered fake AIS signal, which overrides the original AIS signal and is received by the AIS receivers. Therefore, in this type of attack, the message integrity is violated in that there is no way to ensure that the message received was the message that was sent.
Frequency Hopping
In the frequency hopping type of attack, the attacker impersonates the maritime authority by using a particular class of AIS messages called the control messages to instruct one or more AIS transponders to change their frequencies of operation to nonstandard channels of operation, resulting in the AIS stations unable to receive and transmit their ship’s position thereby disrupting the availability of the AIS transponders. With this type of attack, the attacker can disrupt transmission or reception whenever a ship enters a particular geographical region.
Timing attack
In another type of availability disruption threat, a timing attack can be used to inhibit the transmission of AIS messages by iterating through a command that instructs a victim to delay transmission by 15 minutes.
Replay attack
The AIS messages currently lack a timestamp, which makes the AIS transmissions very vulnerable to replay attacks. In this type of attack, a malicious adversary can record a series of legitimate AIS transmissions from a vessel and replay them at any given time to create a fictitious target with real data.
Collision Trigger spoofing
One of the benefits of the AIS system includes collision avoidance. This is achieved by a feature called Closest Point of Approach (CPA), which computes the minimal distance between two ships, of which at least one is in motion. The AIS based on the CPA feature then triggers a collision alert in the event of an expected collision. The trigger can result in an alert on the captain’s console or an acoustic siren that changes the ship’s course to avoid a potential collision. In this type of attack, an attacker can spoof a ship to be on a collision course with a targeted vessel, resulting in a ship going off course or running it aground during low tide.
AIS: Way forward
The AIS has many security vulnerabilities which adversaries can exploit to mount attacks that can disrupt the transmission of AIS or relay false information that ultimately can affect maritime situational awareness. Hence, there is a need to enhance the security mechanisms of AIS. According to existing literature, techniques that can potentially be used include adopting public key cryptographic mechanisms such as the Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) standard into the AIS protocol, which can help achieve message authentication and integrity of the AIS messages. However, for the security mechanisms incorporated into the AIS protocol, it is vital to ensure that the capabilities introduced for providing authentication and integrity are well within the constraints of the AIS protocol and standard.
The capability of implementations to secure the AIS protocol and at the same time maintaining backward compatibility is an active area of research, and many methods are being proposed as demonstrations of proof of concept. However, the interoperability of these capability implementations with the existing AIS protocol needs to be explored. Another potential mitigation measure would be to explore the feasibility of employing anomaly detection techniques to detect suspicious activities such as unexpected changes in vessel routes and static information.

Marco Balduzzi, Alessandro Pasta, Kyle Wilhoit, “A Security Evaluation of AIS Automated Identification System,” Proceedings of the 30th Annual Computer Security Applications Conference, December 2014.
Andrej Androjna, Marko Perkovi, Ivica Pavic,Jakša Miškovi, “AIS data vulnerability indicated by a spoofing study,” MDPI – Journal of Applied Sciences, 26 April 2021.
 Robert E. Litts, “Security Improvements for the Automatic Identification Systems,” Thesis, Old Dominion University, May 2021.
G.C. Kessler, “Protected AIS: A Demonstration of Capability Scheme to Provide Authentication and Message Integrity,” The International Journal on Marine Navigation and Safety of Sea Transportation, Volume 14, Number 2, June 2020, DOI: 10.12716/1001.14.02.02
Androjna et al., “Assessing Cyber Challenges of Maritime Navigation,” Journal of Marine Science and Engineering, October 2020.
Christian et al., “A Backwards Compatible Approach to Authenticate Automatic Identification System Messages,” IEEE International Conference on Cyber Security and Resilience (CSR) Workshops, 2021.
About the author
Hema Karnam is a PhD Scholar at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS). She has an MS in Electronics and Communication Engineering from Utah State University, USA. Her current research interests include artificial intelligence for maritime awareness and cybersecurity.


In Brief
By Rashmi BR and Padmashree Anandhan
The US: First female patient cured of HIV
On 15 February, The New York Times reported that an American woman had been cured of HIV through a stem cell transplant involving the umbilical cord blood for the first time. She is the first woman and the third patient to be cured of the disease. The case was presented at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, Denver, US, and is a part of the study on HIV patients receiving treatment for cancer and other serious diseases conducted by the John Hopkins University and the University of California.
The first successful case of cure was reported in 2008 when a man known as ‘the Berlin Patient’ received a bone marrow transplant from donors with rare genetic mutations that are resistant to HIV. In 2019, the second man to be cured, ‘the London Patient’, also underwent a similar transplant process along with antiretroviral therapy (ARV). In 2020, a Brazilian man named ‘the Sao Paulo Patient’ was reportedly free from the virus for 15 months but re-contracted after a few months. ARV therapy remains the most widely used treatment process and extends life expectancy to a near-normal rate, but not cure the disease.
The new method presented by the scientists involves umbilical cord blood, which is more readily available than adult stem cells. The woman is known as ‘the New York Patient’ has been free of the virus for 14 months. The essential point to note is that all the three cured patients are affected by cancer and receive treatments primarily targeted at eliminating cancer cells rather than HIV. The 25 patients in the study undergo chemotherapy and later receive stem cells that will help them build an immune system resistant to HIV. Sharon Lewin, the president of the International AIDS Society, said: “bone marrow transplants are not a viable strategy to cure most people living with HIV… This report confirms that a cure for HIV is possible and further strengthens using gene therapy as a viable strategy for an HIV cure.”
The new treatment promises progress in healthcare science and system in terms of availability, the lesser need to keenly match the umbilical cord stem cells of the recipient and donors, unlike the adult stem cells, the intensity of side effects, and the possibility of curing the mixed-race patients. However, there are genuine concerns regarding the process. First, the treatments have been experimented on HIV patients who are also affected by cancer. The viability of its usage for other HIV patients is yet to be seen. Second, though better available, the treatment will still not be easily accessible to nearly 40 million patients, most of whom live in the developing and least-developed world. (Apoorva Mandavilli, “A woman is cured of HIV using a novel treatment,” The New York Times, 15 February 2022; James Gallagher, “HIV: First woman in the world believed to be cured of virus,” BBC, 16 February 2022; FP Staff, “US woman becomes first to be cured of HIV: Know all about the umbilical cord blood treatment,” Firstpost, 17 February 2022; Mike Macrae, “American woman appears to be entirely cured of HIV after unique medical treatment,” Science Alert, 16 February 2022; “Woman cured of HIV after stem cell transplant,” Al Jazeera, 16 February 2022; “Second man seems to be free of AIDS virus after transplant,” Al Jazeera, 5 March 2019)
France: One Ocean Summit 2022 
On 11 February, leaders and representatives from 100 countries attended the One Ocean summit hosted by the French President, Emmanuel Macron in the coastal city of Brest. The summit brought out ways to deal with the threats to the ocean, such as overfishing, plastic pollution, use of carbon-intensive fuels, and how countries can commit to the measures to preserve the ocean. President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who spoke at the summit, highlighted three critical areas of cooperation to conserve the oceans: "a new international coalition to protect biodiversity on high seas, which constitute 95 per cent of the ocean; a major computing project allowing researchers to digitally simulate the world's oceans; and the EU's research mission to restore our ocean and waters by 2030." 
For the first time, an attempt has been made by the EU in drafting a framework for ocean biodiversity and marine life conservation. There have been many individual laws governing the seas, shipping standards, and marine environment, but the ocean's health has been mentioned at the summit. There is a special focus on marine species. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing practices in the EU and management of marine litter have been significant concerns. Other challenges such as underwater noise, pollutant air emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, aggressive aquatic species, residues, oily discharge, and ship recycling were part of the larger focus areas of the summit. The EU proposed the European Digital Twin Ocean and EU4 Ocean coalition to bridge the gap in seabed mapping and facilitate ocean education at all levels. The US committed only to reducing plastic pollution and promised to guard the environment. Common goals established between UNESCO and the EU serve as a possibility for intra- regional and international ocean cooperation. 
The launch of Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ), an internationally binding treaty under the UNCLOS, urged the states to sign an agreement by the end of 2022. This treaty will drive all states towards global ocean protection and help look beyond the national territory and given goals. It brings in the responsibility factor to ensure that states don’t restrict themselves to only conserving the marine biodiversity within their region. It aims to push towards one ocean for all. (“One Ocean Summit: UNESCO pledges to have at least 80% of the seabed mapped by 2030,” UNESCO, 10 February 2022; “One Ocean Summit: new steps strengthen EU leadership in protecting the Ocean,” European Commission, 11 February 2022; “World leaders at France summit mull ways to protect oceans,” Associated Press, 11 February 2022)


S&T Nuggets
By Akriti Sharma and Harini Madhusudan
The US: Sea levels to increase by two feet end of the century
On 15 February, according to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), coastal sea levels in the US will increase by afoot by the end of 2050 and two feet by the end of the century. The report titled, “2022 Sea Level Rise Technical Report- Updated projections available through 2150 for all U.S. coastal waters'' is an update of a study done in 2017. The report states that the coastal flooding will moderately increase (almost ten times more than the current rate) and further extend inland. Additionally, if the emission reduction targets are not met by the end of the century the sea-level rise can be 3-5 feet. The report suggested an increase in the monitoring of the sea level, which would help track the changes in the sea by using methods such as satellite monitoring to help build better policymaking to address the increase in the sea level. (“2022 Sea Level Rise Technical Report Updated projections available through 2150 for all U.S. coastal waters,” NOAA, February 2022; Henry Fountain, “Coastal Sea Levels in the U.S. to Rise a Foot by 2050, Study Confirms,” The New York Times, 15 February 2022)
Environment: Endurance22 reaches the target area in Antarctica
On 13 February, the BBC reported that the historical ship that wrecked in the world's coldest region had been traced. In 1915, a ship of the Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, Endurance sank into the Weddell Sea in the Antarctic. The ship had 28 explorers who survived and were stranded on the frozen sea.The wreck is protected as a Historic Site and Monument under the Antarctic Treaty. The ship is around 3000 metres under the frozen sea. The Endurance expedition aimed at being the first to cross Antarctica from the Weddell Sea via the South Pole to the Ross Sea. The Endurance22 Expedition is the first to deploy underwater vehicles to search for the wreck of a lost ship. These hybrid vehicles combine the attributes of a Remote Operating Vehicle (ROV) and an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV). The Endurance22 expedition started on 5 February 2022 has finally located the ship. (Jonathon Amos, “Shackleton's Endurance: Modern star maps hint at famous wreck's location,” BBC, 13 February 2022)
Environment: UNEP report on major environmental threats
On 17 February, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) launched the 2022 edition of the “Frontiers report: Noises, Blazes and Mismatches: Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern”. The report has stated the major environmental threats, including climate change, wildfires and noise pollution. It has addressed noise pollution by stating its long-term physical and mental health impacts. It suggests measures that can be implemented to create a positive and restorative environment in urban areas. It discusses wildfires and their link to climate change and its impact on human health. It also suggests measures to address wildfires. It also looks at how climate change disrupts human and animal life cycles and the need to restore ecosystems. (“Frontiers 2022: Noise, Blazes and Mismatches,” UNEP, 17 February 2022)
The Netherlands: New HIV variant found
On 20 February, a new variant, VB, of HIV was found in the Netherlands, which is more virulent and damaging to human health. Patients With the VB variant had a viral load between 3.5 and 5.5 times higher, a decline in the rate of CD4 cell, and increased transmissibility. The study was published in The Lancet titled “A highly virulent variant of HIV-1 circulating in the Netherlands”. According to SciTechDaily, the first author of the paper, Dr Chris Wymant, from the University of Oxford, said: “Before this study, the genetics of the HIV were known to be relevant for virulence, implying that the evolution of a new variant could change its impact on health. Discovery of the VB variant demonstrated this, providing a rare example of the risk posed by viral virulence evolution.”(“Highly Virulent and Destructive New HIV Variant Discovered in the Netherlands,” SciTechDaily, 20 February 2022; “A highly virulent variant of HIV-1 circulating in the Netherlands,” Science, 3 February 2022)
Health: Gene therapy received for Tay-Sachs disease
On 20 February, Nature published a study titled “First Gene Therapy for Tay-Sachs Disease Successfully Given to Two Children”. Tay-Sachs is a severe neurological disease caused by a deficiency in an enzyme, HexA, which breaks down a fatlike substance that usually exists in tiny amounts in the brain. However, without HexA, this fat-like substance can accumulate to damage and kill neurons. It was discovered in 1883 by a British ophthalmologist. There is still no treatment for the disease. The treatment was given to two children using two harmless viral vectors to deliver DNA instructions to brain cells that teach them how to produce the missing enzyme. These DNA instructions enter the nucleus of these cells and stay, allowing for the long-term production of HexA. (Miguel Sena-Esteves, “First Gene Therapy for Tay-Sachs Disease Successfully Given to Two Children,” The Conversation US, 15 February 2022)
China: Shanghai local government and China’s Xingwang sign a deal to foster a commercial space hub
On 17 February, the local government of Shanghai and the Chinese company for the broadband mega constellation agreed intending to foster a space hub that supports satellite mass production and reusable rockets. The China Satellite Network Group or Xingwang was established in 2021 as a national project to develop a low-earth mega constellation consisting of 13,000 satellites. Chinese entities CASC, CASIC, and CETC have LEO broadband constellations which would be superseded by the mega constellation. Many Chinese commercial rocket companies would seek them as opportunities for contracts. (Andrew Jones, “Shanghai signs agreement with China’s mega constellation group, aims to foster commercial space hub,SpaceNews, 17 February 2022)
Europe: EU lays a plan for a satellite-based system to boost their space traffic management system
On 15 February, the European Commission released a “joint communication,” outlining the EU approach to Space Traffic Management (STM). This is done to develop international regulations for safe and responsible operations and increase EU capabilities to track objects. Thus, the EU wants to work with the US and the UN. A part of the proposal in the joint communication involves improving the capabilities of the EU Space Surveillance and Tracking (SST) Program to ensure they reduce the reliance on US data and create their capacity. The second part of the proposal seeks to develop multinational agreements on STM. (Jeff Foust, “European Union lays out a plan to bolster space traffic management capabilities,SpaceNews, 20 February 2022)
Space: Conjunction Squalls of debris from the Russian ASAT test overwhelms SSA systems
On 18 February, it was reported that the debris from the ASAT weapon demonstration in November are creating surges of close satellite approaches, with up to tens of thousands in a week, among the active satellites in the low earth orbits. conjunction squalls were first noticed in January 2022 and are expected to reach 40,000 conjunctions per day predicted purely from one event. Such disturbances will overwhelm the Space Situational Awareness (SSA) systems. (Jeff Foust, “Russian ASAT debris creating “squalls” of close approaches with satellites,SpaceNews, 18 February 2022)
Europe: The Global mRNA technology transfer hub and the EU-AU Summit
On 18 February, at the EU-AU summit in Brussels, the WHO Director-General announced that Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia would be the first six countries in Africa to produce mRNA vaccines on the African continent. This initiative is a part of the Global mRNA technology transfer hub established in 2021 to support manufacturers in low- and middle-income countries to produce their vaccines, medicines and diagnostics to address health emergencies and reach universal health coverage according to international standards. The primary efforts are centred on mRNA technologies and biologicals, which are essential for vaccine manufacturing. They can be extended for other products, such as insulin to treat diabetes, cancer medicines and vaccines for other priority diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and HIV. (WHO, “WHO announces first technology recipients of mRNA vaccine hub with strong support from African and European partners,” 18 February 2022)
Australia: Bionic eye tech aims to help blind people see
 On 14 February, the results of a medical trial of bionic, artificial eyes were surgically implanted on sheep. The study was aimed at ultimately helping people with various kinds of blindness. A device named Phoenix 99 was prepared by a team of researchers from the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales. The device is wirelessly linked to a camera attached to a pair of glasses and works by stimulating the user’s retina. The device was tested on animals to see if it caused any adverse physical reactions, and following its success, it is now said to be in a test phase with human patients. (Bernd Debusmann Jr, “Bionic eye tech aims to help blind people see,BBC, 14 February 2022)
About the authors
Harini Madhusudan, Rashmi Ramesh and Akriti Sharma are PhD Scholars at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS. Padmashree Anandhan is a research assistant at NIAS.

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