Using what it calls activity-based intelligence, Windward, a five-year-old maritime data and analytics firm here, probes beyond the ship-tracking services available on today's market to validate identities of ocean-going vessels.
It compares their patterns of behavior and past associations with other ships — even where they loaded or didn't load in specific ports of call.
By trolling for myriad bits of objective fact and fusing them into what Windward co-founder and Chief Executive Ami Daniel calls "a ship's DNA," the firm is able to serve up "subjective conclusions" that help clients flag potential threats as well as opportunities.
Then Windward "dives deeper" into building so-called unique IDs and risk-modeling based on specific client interests.
"We organize the data into layers and in a way that becomes clear what each vessel has done," Daniel said.
"It brings them from a place of being data rich but information poor; from having a lot of fragmented and often unreliable data to a place where they can start doing what they should be doing, which is threat analysis," he said.
A prerequisite to the information culled from those "deep dives" is persistent cleansing from clutter and fraud to validate the ship's so-called DNA.
"Nobody knows who's the real owner of 75 percent of the world's vessels," said Daniel. "The reason is, for business reasons, they are registered under various flags of convenience by a lawyer who has one share and nobody knows who's on top of him.
"So the tools of looking at data bases or registries are great in theory, but not in practice."
The same holds true, company executives here say, for the Automated Information System (AIS), satellite-supported tracking system initiated in recent years by the US Coast Guard and now required by ocean-going vessels and passenger ships.
"Ships go dark. And what you put into your transmitter or what you report does not necessarily match," Daniel said. "People can type in different IMO numbers [than those provided by the UN International Maritime Organization], and they can change numbers daily. So when you get into the system, you often have no idea if the data you're looking at is true and authentic."
Last year, the company published a report illustrating the magnitude of fraudulent behavior associated with AIS transmissions.
According to the report, vulnerabilities come in several "flavors" – identity fraud, obscuring destinations, going "dark," GPS manipulation and spoofing.
"All share a single goal: distorting the maritime picture and with it the ability of decision-makers to act on valid, reliable data," the report warned.
Specific findings from the report showed an increase in GPS manipulation of 59 percent over the past two years; that 55 percent of ships misreport their actual port of call for the majority of their voyage; that large cargo ships shut off AIS transmissions 24 percent longer than others; and that 19 percent of the ships that "go dark" are repeat offenders.
Although the report has not been updated since last year, "We see these trends continuing and ships becoming increasingly inventive in what they do to conceal their identities and avoid detection," said Michal Chafets, Windward's head of communications.
To illustrate this point, Windward conducted an analysis specifically for Defense News, in which the company employed "reverse engineering" of a known arms smuggling incident to highlight similarly suspicious behavior by a ship that managed to evade detection by law enforcement authorities.
Its baseline case was the Haddad, a 39-year-old, Bolivian-flagged cargo vessel that embarked from Iskenderun, Turkey, in early September. It was ultimately seized by Greek authorities south of Crete with a cache of some 5,000 shotguns and a half million rounds of undocumented ammunition.
Using the route plied by the 66-meter Haddad, which sailed along the Turkish coast en route to Libya before being stopped, Windward came up with a similar profile of another ship which, for a variety of legal and proprietary reasons, it preferred to call Vessel X.
Like the Haddad, Vessel X was more than 30 years old and around the same size, about 75 meters. It left the same Turkish port on Aug. 19 — less than a month prior to Haddad — bearing a flag of convenience, this one from the South Pacific island of Vanuatu.
A day later, Vessel X stopped in an area near the Turkish shore where there was no other port in the area or any other reason to stop at that location, company analysts found.
"In all likelihood, this was a rendezvous point with smaller, non transmitting vessels that probably loaded cargo onto the vessel. Clearly, if the cargo was legal, this type of loading would be done at port," Windward noted.
It then continued west along Turkey's coast for two days, stopping again close to shore — in an area where there are no ports — for five days near the Greek island of Karpathos.
"Since ships are economic entities, spending five days near an island with no port and no way for the ship to reach shore is highly suspect. This is likely the drop off point for the cargo, possibly as an entry point into Europe," Windward analysts noted.
"This deviation from the ship's pattern of life is another significant risk indicator," analysts wrote.
On top of that, Vessel X shut off its transmission for eight hours, during which time AIS transmissions indicated it covered a mere 13 nautical miles. If it had been sailing at usual speed, it should have taken only 1.5 hours to cover the same distance, analysts noted.
"This means that there are 6.5 'dark' hours close to shore during which time the ship was engaged in some activity. Again, we believe this was likely a meeting place to unload cargo."
Once Vessel X resumed transmissions, it "tried to cover its tracks," Windward noted, sailing north along the Crete shoreline and then reverting southwest toward Tunisia.
"This is what we call an uneconomical journey, because a ship should always take the shortest route between points A and B and there were no extreme meteorological conditions at the time that might have explained this type of deviation."
On Sept. 1, en route to Tunisia, Vessel X again shut off transmissions for 22.5 hours, sailing a distance that should have been covered in less than three hours. "That leaves nearly 20 hours unaccounted for. The ship could easily have conducted illegal activity during this time," Windward supposed.
After a short port call in Tunisia, Vessel X set sail toward Malta and continued to Italy. According to the firm's "sources," it was stopped by authorities in September, but no suspicious cargo was found.
"Had authorities stopped the ship earlier in its journey, it could have been caught in the act," Chafets said. "It's just one illustration of how Windward's maritime intelligence solutions are bringing real visibility, for the first time, to the maritime domain, which remains a Wild West of sorts even in 2015."
Over the past few years, the privately owned firm has raised $17.3 million in funding. Its stakeholders include a major investor from Sweden, Hong Kong-based Horizon Ventures, Israel's Aleph Capital Ventures and, most recently, private investment from retired US Army Gen. and former CIA Director David Petraeus.
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.