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Investigation : Revealing Dark Port Calls

  • AIS data is complete, vessel tracking can only answer where a ship was.

  • AIS disablement is the #1 method that criminals use to conceal illicit activities and port calls
  • Dark Activity (DA) insights enable 10X more efficient investigations of AIS disablement events
  • To see through deceptive shipping practices and overcome the limitations of vessel tracking organizations are turning to AI tools fusing multiple sources of data

AIS data shows us where ships are, have been and will be. It’s become a crucial tool for governments, authorities, and companies in maritime trade, such as traders, banks and shipowners, in the war against illicit trade and financial crime. As a result, criminals and sanctions evaders have resorted to disabling their AIS to conceal their illicit activities and port calls.

A robust “ Know Your Vessel” (KYV™) process is much more than vessel

This tactic has become so prevalent that authorities such as the UN, multiple U.S. agencies, and the UK treasury are recommending companies add AIS monitoring to their due diligence procedures

The next generation of Dark Activity analysis

Windward pioneered Dark Activity algorithms precisely calibrated to filter out AIS lost signals and flag deliberate AIS disablement. With the next generation of DA analysis, our customers can access an additional layer of automatically generated insights, including a list of feasible port calls a vessel could have made during the Dark Activity and the potential window of time a ship was in port.

These insights enable users to accurately zoom in on potential hidden port calls, quickly assess each possibility for different risks and prioritize resources for further investigations.



Investigating concealed port calls

Let’s walk through a typical example to see what this means for our clients. A VLCC crude oil tanker stops transmitting AIS in the middle of the gulf. Windward DA AI algorithm determines this was a deliberate turn-off of AIS. By the time it reappears, there are 70 hours unaccounted for. 

Where did it go during this time?  Within the radius of where it could have gone during the unaccounted for time, there are 44 ports.  

The question is how many are actual possibilities? By analyzing the location, unaccounted for time, ship’s operating pattern, nearby port profiles, and other parameters Windward highlights four ports as the only ones could have loaded or unloaded at.

By automatically reducing the number of feasible port calls from 44 to 4 the team investigating this incident cut their time and effort by more than 10X.

Vessel tracking weaknesses

The downsides of relying solely on AIS to track vessels are clear.  An analysis of Venezuelan oil trade reveals there may be 3X as many tankers transporting Venezuelan crude and oil products bound for Venezuela than visible through standard tracking tools. And there are other ways AIS is vulnerable to manipulation other than simply turning it off such as identity tampering. And criminals are constantly developing even more sophisticated tactics.

Additional sets of data to feed into our maritime AI analytics platform – MAIA.

But even when AIS data is complete, vessel tracking can only answer where a ship was. It cannot tell you what it was doing, who it was trading with, and most importantly, does it pose a risk to your business?  This is especially true as Ship to Ship transfers at sea emerge as a common deceptive shipping practice. A robust “ Know Your Vessel” (KYV™) process is much more than vessel tracking.

Multiple perspectives give a 360 view of risk

Traditional approaches like list matching and vessel tracking are still the foundations of managing maritime risk but to keep up with the growing sophistication of bad actors, companies, and government agencies are moving to solutions that incorporate AI and domain expertise.  These solutions can detect events like ship to ship meetings with high-risk counter-parties, uneconomic behavior, and anomalies – like sudden course deviations and flag hopping.

And staying ahead will require even more innovation. Windward’s Predictive Intelligence solution is continuously adding additional sets of data to feed into our maritime AI analytics platform – MAIA. 

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