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Government-only vessel-tracking data up for sale ‘with US approval’

New US sanctions guidance for international shipping triggers far-reaching and controversial consequences for monitoring movements of the global shipping fleet

Regulators caught blind-sided as confidential and secure long-range ship tracking data is put on the market by a supplier arguing that US sanctions guidance has opened up a loophole allowing access at a price

NEW advice from the US administration has effectively endorsed commercialising confidential and sensitive satellite-tracking data previously available only to governments, raising concerns among shipowners and regulators about access and privacy.

Satellite signals from vessels used for Long Range Identification Tracking are now being provided to commercial entities for the first time, based on interpretations of US sanctions guidance for the international shipping industry issued in May.

LRIT is mandatory on vessels to comply with international safety conventions. Signals are transmitted alongside the better-known and open-source Automatic Identification System technology. Each provides frequent, real-time information about a vessel’s location and identity to governments and search and rescue services.

But unlike AIS, LRIT vessel-tracking can only be accessed by each ship’s flag authority. As a result, the data is widely viewed as confidential, with access to government agencies only.

This thinking has now been turned on its head. On May 14, the US departments of State and Treasury, and the US Coast Guard jointly released the advisory for the maritime sector to address illicit shipping and sanctions evasion practices. Tough unilateral sanctions on Iran and Venezuela imposed more than 18 months ago are restricting exports of energy commodities, placing additional scrutiny on vessel movements.

The extensive, 35-page guide outlined common deceptive shipping practices used for sanctions busting and risk-compliance strategies for charterers, banks, marine insurers, vessel owners and others involved in the logistics chain to identify them. 

One of the so-called deceptive practices listed was disabling a vessel’s AIS during voyages to disguise the origin and destination of sanctioned cargoes, a practice known as “going dark”. Tankers transporting Venezuelan oil, as well as Iranian crude, products and liquefied petroleum gas routinely switch off AIS transponders in order to avoid detection.

Small print

To counter this, the advisory recommends for the first time that LRIT is used to supplement AIS tracking. It is this innocuous paragraph within the guidance that allows and supports the technology being commercialised, according to UK-based company Pole Star.

Pole Star already manages LRIT data for more than half the world’s fleet via contracts with the world’s largest flag authorities, including Panama, Marshall Islands, Liberia and Singapore. Pole Star provides the equipment on vessels that transmits the signals to its data centre through either Inmarsat or Iridium satellites. It then passes on the ship information to its flag authority and government customers.  

“Anybody who takes payment from clients in US dollars now has a regulatory right to utilise this type of information because they are now obligated to undertake ‘Know Your Customer’ measures,” Pole Star chief executive Julian Longson told Lloyd’s List. According to Pole Star’s interpretation of the guidance, this means that banks, marine insurers, charterers and others required to undertake risk compliance checks that included vessel-tracking, can access the same data transmitted for LRIT if they want.

Pole Star says it worked closely with the Department of State during a year-long consultation process with the wider maritime community to promote the use of LRIT technology.

As a so-called Application Service Provider, Pole Star is one of at least two companies that supplies pre-installed tracking equipment such as Inmarsat-C GMDSS system on vessels.

But in order to use the data for commercial purposes, Pole Star is circumventing the flag state. 

“We do this independently of the flag. LRIT is completely separate,” said Mr Longston.

“We are establishing a parallel ship position reporting mechanism that is technically the same as LRIT but set up separately by Pole Star using Inmarsat or Iridium and therefore billed separately to the commercial entity.”

The availability of commercially available LRIT data has happened so quickly that is has  blindsided the regulatory agency overseeing satellite shipping data.

The International Mobile Satellite Organization, which oversees the provision of global maritime distress and safety systems, including LRIT, was unaware the data was being offered for sale outside government agencies. IMSO is part of the International Maritime Organization.

“Our assessment is that the current regulations do not permit providing LRIT information to commercial entities for onward dissemination as a business service,” Moin Ahmed, the director-general of IMSO, told Lloyd’s List.

Lloyd’s List gave Capt Ahmed further details from Pole Star about how it was circumventing the regulations via a separate, parallel data feed. “This is something we’d have to refer to the International Maritime Organization legal department for further advice,” Capt Ahmed said, including checking contractual obligations of satellite providers.

Tracking frequency

IMO regulations mandate that vessels signal their location via LRIT at least every six hours, or more frequently if their flag authority requests it.  

Like AIS, any LRIT system should be transmitting continually. But unlike AIS, few shipowners disable LRIT when needed for safety or security reasons on the basis that the data is not commercially available. Although vessels switch off AIS to avoid detection for shipping sanctioned cargoes, not all missing signals are for deceptive reasons.

AIS technology can often be patchy and unavailable in busy areas. This is why the US State Department recommended supplementary tracking with LRIT.

Inmarsat, the London-based provider of maritime satellite communications, has “nothing to do with who can access the [LRIT] data and who has the rights to that data”, a spokesman said.

“It is up to the Application Service Provider. We just provide [the signal] to the ASP,” he said.

“We have never had control of or access to that data as that sits with the ASP and the Contracting Government.”

Under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, known as Solas, LRIT reports are forwarded to the data centre nominated by the ship’s flag state. 

Pole Star said it worked closely with the US Department of State in the months before it released the marine advisory to guide on LRIT policy issues.

The US advice was incorporated under a section about monitoring ships throughout their entire transaction lifecycle.

“Shipowners, managers, and charter companies are encouraged to continuously monitor vessels, including those leased to third parties,” the advisory said.

“This could include supplementing AIS with Long Range Identification and Tracking [LRIT] and receiving periodic LRIT signals on a frequency informed by the entity’s risk assessment. Port authorities in areas that present a high risk related to sanctions evasion may wish to consider monitoring ships using LRIT within their areas of operation as a risk mitigation strategy.”

The revised Pole Star methodology and data collection appears to sidestep issues about data ownership, although this has not been tested. Flag states are responsible for keeping the data confidential Capt Ahmed from IMSO said.

The agreement made between the flag state authority, known as the ‘Contracting Government’ in the Solas regulations, and the data centre operator (which could be a commercial service provider like Pole Star or a government entity) ensures the proper use of LRIT, according to the IMSO.

“Regarding the ownership of the LRIT information within the LRIT system, from our perspective it is the flag state who owns the data. Other Contracting Governments receiving the LRIT data are expected to follow the Regulation 19-1 of Solas Chapter V when processing the LRIT information,” he said.

That regulation says the contracting governments must “recognise and respect the commercial confidentiality and sensitivity of information received”. 

Others working in related sectors who spoke to Lloyd’s List on the condition of anonymity suggested that US sanctions regulators do not fully understand the implications of endorsing LRIT use for the commercial sector.

The Department of Treasury and its Office of Foreign Asset Control have been frequently criticised over the past 18 months about how they have handled complex sanctions against Venezuela and Iran.

Whether the commercial use of LRIT sits comfortably with shipowners is unclear because the fact the data is now being available to charterers, banks and marine insurers is not widely known or understood. 

“This development raises more questions about the new sanctions guidance than it answers,” a representative from one industry group told Lloyd’s List.

“We will be watching this very, very carefully to see how widely it is taken up.”


Right to reply

At Lloyd’s List, we stand by our reporting but have always taken a policy of transparency, engagement and running views and opinions that are divergent to our own where appropriate.

Therefore, we are giving Julian Longson, CEO / Managing Director of maritime services provider Pole Star, a right to reply to this article, which can be viewed in full below:

“I publish this right-of-reply in response to the Lloyds List story entitled “Government-only vessel tracking data up for sale ‘with US approval’”, published widely across digital channels on 19 June 2020.

It is a damning indictment of Lloyds List and the pervasive reality of fake news that after challenging the publisher over the worryingly, misleading and misrepresentative aforementioned article that it declined an honourable retraction and apology, limiting my option to this right-of-reply.

To put the record straight as CEO / Managing Director of Pole Star I can with absolute conviction state that we have always been proud of our integrity, openness, and transparency in collaborative work with over 1500 organisations both private and public. In the article there were a number of serious inferences and regrettable choice of words that has led to our clients’ wholly unjustified concerns – inferences that are completely counter to the Pole Star ethos and to us being a trusted party to all clients.

The article is fundamentally inaccurate as:

1. Pole Star does not sell Government LRIT data, which was made very clear numerous times to the journalist in the interview and email correspondence.

2. Pole Star has never used LRIT data for any other purpose than servicing individual clients and provision of National LRIT Data Centres.

3. Pole Star will never sell Government LRIT data to third parties.

4. LRIT and Inmarsat-C position data is the same technology but configured, managed, and billed separately by Pole Star. The ship equipment is the same, whilst the position report data is different (and will have different time stamps). This is exactly the same as shipping companies use today through Pole Star.”

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