Wed. Dec 1st, 2021

China has blocked public access to shipping location data, citing national security issues, in another sign of its determination to control sources of sensitive information.

The number of automatic identification system (AIS) signals from ships in Chinese waters has dropped dramatically from a peak of more than 15m per day in October to just over 1m per day in early November.

The AIS was initially developed to help avoid collisions between vessels and to support rescue efforts in the event of a disaster. But it is also becoming a valuable tool for improving the visibility of the supply chain and for governments to track activities in overseas ports.

“The intelligence extracted from these data endangers China’s economic security and the damage can not be ignored,” warned A Chinese state media report on November 1 on AIS stations in the coastal province of Guangdong.

Authorities surveyed in the report said foreign intelligence agencies, companies and think tanks were using the system to track China’s military vessels and analyze economic activity by investigating cargo traffic.

The decline in AIS data is one of the first victims of China’s new data protection regime, which limits the transfer of sensitive information overseas. Companies that want to send important data abroad must undergo a security evaluation with the country’s data watchdog.

Anastassis Touros, in charge of the AIS team at information provider MarineTraffic, said he did not believe that AIS data posed a risk to national security, and that military vessels often hid their location from the trackers.

The decline in AIS data from the first week of November has affected shipping companies’ ability to accurately track activities at Chinese ports, said Charlotte Cook, chief trading analyst at VesselsValue, a maritime data provider.

Touros said reduced visibility is likely to cause more congestion at Chinese ports, which was already trapped due to bad weather and pandemic-related disruptions, as it would become more difficult to time vessel arrivals with few traffic periods. But one ship manager and two freight forwarders said it was unlikely the lack of terrestrial AIS data would cause worse bottlenecks.

Graph showing daily terrestrial AIS positions in Chinese waters (m).  The number of signals dropped dramatically from a peak of more than 15m per day in October to just over 1m per day in early November

The safety of vessels sailing in Chinese waters is also unlikely to be affected, said Gregory Poling, co-author of a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies. report who used AIS data to analyze militia deployments. He said Chinese officials would have other systems in place to track vessels through coastal waters.

AIS data gives analysts insight into port activities worldwide, but China is unique in describing this data as a national security issue. Touros noted that even the strict European general data protection regulation does not restrict providers from using AIS.

But Beijing is more sensitive to sharing location data, as highlighted by the punishment handed out to ride-sharing company Didi Chuxing for perceived data breaches.

“The collection and sharing of location data, especially when it comes to shipping routes up and down the Chinese coast, is a matter of great sensitivity,” said Carolyn Bigg, a Hong Kong-based technology lawyer at DLA Piper.

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