The AIS marine tracking system is “hacked,” but is that so?

The work was presented at the HiTB conference in Kuala Lumpur 2013. Presentation slides are available here .

From the official Trend Micro blog:

Researchers at Trend Micro have found that AIS (Automatic Identification System) security issues allow you to intercept communications between ships, create “ghost ships”, send SOS signals or collision messages, or turn off AIS on any ship altogether.

Authors Marco Balduzzi and Kyle Wilhoit

It seems to me that those who investigated the security of these systems (AIS) had a good time getting a portion of the fan. But, "security" has nothing to do with it.

Automatic Identification Systems for

AIS Ships is an automatic tracking system that is installed and used by ships and navigation services to identify and locate ships by exchanging data with other nearby ships, ground-based AIS stations, and satellites. When satellites are used to transmit messages, then such communication is denoted as Satellite-AIS (C-AIS). The information received through the AIS complements the data received from the radar, which is still the main source of navigation for water transport.

AIS is used for the following purposes:
• Data exchange between ports and ships
• Data exchange between ships on the high seas
• Navigation, heading, location and speed

Where applicable:
• Maritime traffic control service
• Collision avoidance
• Coast guard service
• Navigation assistance
• Rescue operations
• Short messages, for example , weather forecast

The data (unique identification number, location, course and speed) that these tracking systems provide is displayed either on screens or on ECDIS. Automatic identification systems help navigators and various maritime services to monitor maritime transport and its movement. The heart of the system is a standard UHF transmitter and a satellite positioning system such as LORAN-C, GPS, or Glonass, plus other additional navigation sensors, such as a gyrocompass or an angular velocity sensor. Vessels equipped with AIS transceivers and transponders can be monitored from land via special base stations located along the coast, or via satellites in which equipment for receiving and transmitting AIS signals is installed.

Transponders through the built-in UHF transmitters automatically send their location, speed and navigation status at certain intervals. Information is taken from the navigation sensors of the ship, usually a satellite navigation system or gyrocompass. Other information, such as the name of the vessel and the UHF identifier, is flashed into the equipment when it is installed. Signals are received by AIS transponders installed on other ships or ground stations, for example, a ship traffic control system. The resulting data is then projected onto screens or interactive maps for further analysis and coordination of movement.

The conclusion reached by the researchers is that the identification system of ships can quite easily be used for all kinds of "dirty tricks." In fact, AIS is an ordinary UHF radio, which transmits various kinds of navigation data to the open, which means that all security problems are associated specifically with the radio. To say that the AIS is completely hacked, at least not correctly, if only for the reason that this system was developed at a time when the risk of interception of this data was minimal. Now, with the advent of software-defined radio systems, the task of intercepting and retransmitting these messages has been greatly simplified.

Let us now analyze the possible scenarios of malicious use of these systems, which the researchers cite in their report.

Likely collision

Imagine for a moment that we have a tanker. And there is a navigator in the cockpit and, suddenly, a signal arrives on the screen about a possible collision with another vessel. By the way, all such signals are recorded in the likeness of a “black” box (the same as that on airplanes or race cars) and must be confirmed by the navigator. At this point, the navigator must perform strictly regulated actions and compare potentially hazardous data with indicators of other systems, at least from radar, satellite navigation systems, and visually. As a result, the event will be recorded and the alarm will be canceled.

Man overboard

A similar scenario with a ship in which a crew receives a signal about another ship in distress. In most cases, such information is immediately transferred to the land to the coast guard, which will coordinate all subsequent actions. They are obliged to double-check the received data and notify the team about further actions. As a result, almost all the risks considered by the researchers in their report are minimized.

Disabling AIS transponders on other ships

In some cases, the ship's crew is allowed to completely disable their identification systems. In this case, there are clear rules that describe the actions of the team, for example, constant visual observation.

Weather spoofing

AIS is just one of several sources of weather data. Data received through this channel is (usually) checked and verified with other sources.

All other abuses of these systems relate to online services such as, where the data is provided for informational purposes only and therefore is unlikely to be harmful to anyone.
From the very beginning, ship identification systems were designed to be open, and most likely will remain the same in the near future. The introduction of encryption will mean huge changes, as all equipment on ships will need to be changed. In view of the fact that most of the risks are insignificant, I think that the international maritime organization is unlikely to review the security of this system.

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