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Can Big Data Catch a Pirate?

By   /  June 14, 2012  /  No Comments

by Jody Ray Bennett

Last May, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) announced that it would facilitate $1 million in research grants to develop a suite of web applications to “analyze data and other information to combat pirates, drug smugglers, arms traffickers, illegal fishermen and other nefarious groups.” According to the press release, the project will be a mutual endeavor between the Space and Naval Warfare (SPAWAR), Systems Center Pacific (SSC Pacific), and Engineers at Chile’s Technical University of Federico Santa Maria. The project will aim to “create Web-based tools in an open source environment [that] will focus on producing software to improve automation, small-target detection and intent detection.” The project is titled ‘The International Collaborative Development for Enhanced Maritime Domain Awareness (ICODE MDA).’

The US Navy has an interest in this form of technology in order to combat what it perceives as an increase in serious maritime threats around the world. The focus tends to be off of the Horn of Africa, specifically off the coast of Somalia, where sporadic hijackings, kidnappings, and armed robberies have occurred at sea.

According to the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB) global piracy report, for the first quarter of 2012, “11 vessels were reported hijacked worldwide, with 212 crew members taken hostage and four crew killed […] A further 45 vessels were boarded, with 32 attempted attacks and 14 vessels fired upon – the latter all attributed to either Somali or Nigerian pirates.” From its most recent report, the ICC noted that “while the number of 2012 incidents and hijackings are less than reports for the same period in 2011 (97 incidents, 16 hijackings), it is unlikely that the threat of Somali piracy will diminish in the short to medium term unless further actions are taken.”

Because much of the security focus centers on several African coasts, the research project is also collaborating with research engineers and researchers from the University of Ghana, University of Pretoria, University of Mauritius, and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa.

From the Pentagon’s perspective, taking further action means financing this type of research. While much of the development will take place this fall, the application will attempt to use a large database of information to identify and analyze various physical and behavioral characteristics to determine threat capacity at sea. In what is sure to become a heavy, tedious, and complicated adventure in the world of Big Data, the application is said to “combine automated vessel detection with behavioral analysis” which hopes to enable “sailors to identify and avoid ships engaging in suspicious at-sea maneuvers, which could signal the presence of pirates.”

In an interview with Navy Times, John Stastny, an engineer with ICODEMDA, explained that one of the challenges of the project was to determine what constitutes the behavior of a pirate ship and distinguishing between ships with criminal intent and those without. Stastny explained that the application will “have a base map that will show anomalies that are related to the piracy problem and a widget that shows which are high-risk vessels or high-risk areas for piracy.”

According to information retrieved by journalists for Navy Times, the end result will “operate like iGoogle, an online dashboard that accommodates a user’s preferences and displays personalized data for local weather, email and news [but] will focus on locating pirates.” According to Stastny, the amount of bandwidth that will be needed for this project will be so immense, that the program will be “designed to be used at ashore operations centers.”

But as with many ambitious projects, ICODEMDA has drawn considerable concern and criticism from maritime security insiders and other commentators following these latest developments.

The Mariner Group, a company that develops situation awareness technologies for ports and other offshore activities, might perceive the ICODEMDA project entering into its market space where it regularly competes with other companies to provide maritime intelligence, analysis, and security. Upon the announcement of the ICODEMDA project, the company released a statement that urged caution, stating that “new apps for maritime security must be relevant” and that the company:

[S]upports exercising caution and restraint as it pertains to developing tools such as the Department of Defense’s web-based application in order to ensure that they create capabilities that will be relevant to those whose responsibilities include maritime security. The mere fact that a tool can be created does not, in and of itself, negate the requirement to apply good design and construction of the tool.

Indeed, Wired’s Danger Room aptly noted that the US military already maintained an array of intelligence assets that could—and continue to—help make maritime threat determinations. But the notion that project may be redundant or a poor use of taxpayer money aside, one might also wonder if the US military can handle another Big Data project especially when its Big Data problem has been well documented, even by the government’s own admission.

But even all of those issues aside, there are some logistical concerns with the ICODEMDA project. One of the biggest logistical problems for the application is getting information to and from ships at sea and then sharing that information between coalition forces that are working on separate, highly sensitive networks. For the US Navy, maintaining high-speed network bandwidth at sea is still a major challenge, even with all of the American satellites in orbit. As Wired notes:

Bandwidth aboard Navy ships is a precious commodity. Satellite links for voice, text and data fight for space on deck, a challenge for ships built, in some cases, decades before the widely available internet. It’s not clear if the [ICODEMDA] app suite will operate over an unclassified web — slow as dial-up aboard Navy ships — but [it will] definitely have to work with ships from multiple navies, within ‘a coalition-accessible Web portal,’ […] In addition to the frustrations of slow connection speeds, that’s going to set up a headache for access, since navies within the anti-piracy coalition run the gamut from allies like South Korea to frenemies like Pakistan. Then there’s the challenge of actually pinging the different ships with the relevant data. Satellite connections keep the Navy’s navigation systems communicating around the globe. But as the U.S. Marines have learned to their frustration, pushing data out over the Navy’s pipes is a challenge from distances greater than 100 nautical miles.

The Big Data questions still remain: how will this app analyze the terabytes of data collected by coalition forces to determine how to detect and identify illicit activity? Since the US government has collected more data than it could ever possibly read, one emphasis of the project will have to face the hurdle of identifying and analyzing chunks of intelligence data in order to define, detect, and share new information between coalition forces about both criminal and non-criminal maritime shipping behavior.

This presents challenges on a normative level, specifically in terms of foreign policy and international legal norms, but especially for designers and analysts that hope to use this new application to prevent or secure commercial vessels from piracy around the globe. Indeed, this endeavor will present new a journey with new challenges in space where Global Politics and Big Data converge.

Programming and development on the ICODEMDA project will begin in December 2012 and the application will be designed in open source format. Anyone, even civilians, can access the data from the ICODEMDA Google Code website. The first prototype is scheduled for December 2013.

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