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Homeland Security Be Able To Track Your Boat?
Plots like the attempted bombing of a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon underscore the reality that terrorists can strike in the US at any time, any place--even small town America. We may complain at the enhanced security at airports and cry about our eroding civil rights, still there are threats that our government has to confront head-on, and one of the most prevelant but least talked about problems is maritime security. The United States has thousands of miles of open shoreline and a massive volume of maritime traffic, a situation that lends itself to all kinds of possible terrorist activity. The ability for Homeland Security to track and identify each watercraft would be a huge step in combating this threat, but should it be mandatory?
MDA and AIS
In recognition of the need for a comprehensive maritime security system, President George W. Bush approved a Maritime Domain Awareness Plan in 2005. Simply put, the MDA covers all waterways in the US--rivers, lakes, oceans and bays. With more than 350 ports, 10,000 miles of navigable waterways, 110,000 commercial fishing vessels and approximately 70 million recreational boats, the system has its challenges, but the overall goal is to develop a situation in which everyone at stake can do their part to make sure that all illegal activities on the oceans are eliminated, terrorist or otherwise. To achieve this goal, two main systems of data gathering are the automatic identification system (AIS) and the satellite-based Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) system.
While LRIT is mainly for passenger and cargo ships, AIS is already available to recreational boaters and is being hailed as an important piece of safety equipment and the next step in advancing maritime navigational capabilities. AIS data can easily be superimposed over your radar or chartplotter screen, adding useful information about each boat, buoy or radio beacon that appears. It enables you to keep track of close by vessels plus allows them to keep tabs on your boat also, which makes AIS valuable as a collision-detection technology.
Currently, there are no mandates for recreational boaters to have and use AIS systems, but with each new terrorist threat, we come that much closer to a day when we will all be required to have them. On the surface, the security benefits of having such a system in place is clear. The ability for the Coast Guard or emergency personnel to identify each vessel on their radar and accurately chart their course and speed could greatly assist in combating possible terrorist attacks or in helping a craft during an emergency.
Despite the advantages of AIS, all kinds of criticisms are being leveled at the system and the idea of mandating all recreational boats have one. Of course privacy is a concern, with questions raised about how much information should be openly shared. Boating industry representatives contend that most private boats don't have the electrical systems or the physical space needed to support AIS gear, adding that the units are cost prohibitive for many people who may not be able to afford it. Others say it would be simple for a lawbreaker to fool the system by exploiting its gaps in transponder transmission or by simply turning off the electronics, rendering it useless. Others go even futher with their criticisms, saying that such a system would give terrorists and pirates the ability to track potential targets, turning AIS into a system for attacking commercial shipping.
With its obvious safety and security advantages, AIS definitely has a place in maritime activity. But, the question remains, with its limitations and its benefits, should AIS be required for all boats?
sources: hstoday.us, madmariner.com, armedforcesjournal.com, hss-panama.com, wikipedia.org, fbi.gov
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