The Forward Looking Threat Research team of Trend Micro, a Japanese security software firm, has discovered flaws in the Automatic Identification System (AIS), a vessel tracking system used by commercial ships weighing over 300 metric tonnes.

Installed in around 40,000 vessels, AIS works by taking inputs from a global positioning system (GPS) and then exchanging the vessel’s position, course and other information with nearby ships and offshore installations.

According to the researchers, Marco Balduzzi and Kyle Wilhoit, the flaws in the AIS internet providers can allow pirates and attackers to hijack vessel communications, change the position and course of vessels, create fake vessels, create false SOS or collision alerts, and even permanently disable AIS tracking on any vessel.

Flaws were also discovered in the actual specification of the AIS protocol used by hardware transceivers in all mandatory vessels.

These flaws can impersonate marine authorities to permanently disable the AIS system on a vessel, create a fake ‘man-in-the-water’ distress beacon at any location, and fake a closest point of approach (CPA) alert.

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By GlobalData

Trend Micro noted that these flaws emerged as the AIS protocol was designed with seemingly zero security considerations.

Trend Micro identified major issues such as a lack of validity checks, lack of timing checks, lack of authentication and lack of integrity checks.

According to the researchers, while the tests were carried out in a dedicated test lab setup, where specific software defined radio equipment was used, they were able to prove that the attacks can be performed by the attacker using a standard VHF radio which costs around €150.

According to the researchers, it will be difficult to fix the flaws in the AIS, as they can be seen in the deep core of the protocol, but will need to be updated across three main areas; validity, authenticity and encryption.

Image: 300t ships should not drive down the main street of a city. Credit: Trend Micro Inc.