The Human Touch in a Digital World


Over the last 20 years and more, tracking the movements of individual ships has changed considerably. It has become easier in some ways thanks to the development of web-based platforms, port authority ‘portals’, apps and, of course, publicly available AIS information.

But, to paraphrase the physicist Sir Isaac Newton, for every action there is an opposite reaction. While most ships leave a digital footprint that pretty much anyone with a smartphone can now access, the information on which that footprint is based can be manipulated, and sometimes is.

Sometimes, therefore, what you’re seeing is wrong, and sometimes you can’t see anything at all.

The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea 1974 – commonly referred to as SOLAS – requires vessels of 300 gross tonnes and above to be fitted with an Automatic Identification System (AIS).

Despite AIS data being widely and openly available, AIS is not actually a toy for the entertainment of the general public; it is an aid to navigation.

Its function is not for a ship to let every man and his dog know where it is, but rather to let ships in the vicinity of one another to know where they each are for the purposes of collision avoidance.

It is not compulsory for a ship to transmit an AIS signal at all times. There are exceptions for security reasons, for example and AIS can be switched off.

It can also be programmed to transmit false static information (e.g. name, flag, type, call-sign, tonnage) and voyage information (e.g. cargo, last port of call, next port of call, estimated times of arrival and departure, freeboard); the inputting of which is down to the crew of the subject vessel.

How then do you track a ship that doesn’t want to be seen or found?

The answer to that is you have to have the knowledge and experience to know where the vessel is probably going and what it is probably doing. And you need an expansive network of trusted contacts that can help you confirm it. In other words, you need great human intelligence trade craft.

Over the fifteen years Gray Page has been in business the tools available to track vessels have changed. The internet has made vessel tracking data more accessible to everyone.

However, when there is no contemporaneous and/or accurate digital footprint for a vessel, because its AIS has been switched off or misleadingly programmed, most people are left with little, if anything, to go on.

Not us, however. We have our trade craft and that is why clients still come to us in the digital age to track ships that don’t want to be seen and found.

This paper is intended as a general summary of issues in the stated field. It is not a substitute for authoritative advice on a specific matter. It is provided for information only and free of charge. Every reasonable effort has been made to make it accurate and up to date but no responsibility for its accuracy or correctness, or for any consequences of reliance on it, is assumed by Gray Page.

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