The US Naval Institute and AFSEA have been sponsoring a “Joint Warfighting Conference.” Many of the presentations are available on line and the quality has been excellent. One of the most intriguing presentations was made by Michael Jones, Chief Technology Advocate at Google Ventures.
Using only two people and $3M, Google has begun tracking almost all the vessel traffic on the world’s oceans and they expect to start making this information available to the public. They exploit the the Marine Automatic Identification System (AIS).
There is discussion about this particular presentation here (the video is also linked there) including some discussion of the limits on the technology. If you don’t want to watch the whole presentation, the portion I refer to is from minute 23:30 to minute 31:00. AOL Defense also has a “CliffsNotes” version of the presentation here. Jones claims to have tracked military vessels (along with all other users of AIS) better than some of their commanders can, including track history, course, and speed.
It will probably take a while to sort out all the implications of this technology. It could certainly be useful for SAR, MEP, and fisheries protection. But it also means that the bad guys will have this information as well. Pirates will have better information for selecting and intercepting their targets. Unless Google deletes the information, or cutters turn off AIS, Coast Guard vessel movements will be visible to anyone with the desire to track them. Drug smugglers will know when interdiction vessels are in the area and how many there are. Vessels fishing illegally will have an easier time evading enforcement.