While digging through the data unearthed in an unprecedented census of nearly the entire Internet, Researchers at Rapid7 Labs have discovered a lot of things they didn't expect to find openly responding to port scans. One of the biggest surprises they discovered was the availability of data that allowed them to track the movements of more than 34,000 ships at sea. The data can pinpoint ships down to their precise geographic location through Automated Identification System receivers connected to the Internet.
The AIS receivers, many of them connected directly to the Internet via serial port servers, are carried aboard ships, buoys, and other navigation markers. The devices are installed at Coast Guard and other maritime facilities ashore to prevent collisions at sea within coastal waters and to let agencies to track the comings and goings of international shipping. Rapid7 security researcher Claudio Guarnieri wrote in a blog post on Rapid7's Security Street community site that he, Rapid7 Chief Research Officer H.D. Moore, and fellow researcher Mark Schloesser discovered about 160 AIS receivers still active and responding over the Internet. In 12 hours, the trio was able to log more than two gigabytes of data on ships' positions—including military and law enforcement vessels.
For many of the ships, the vessel's name was included in the broadcast data pulled from the receivers. For others, the identification numbers broadcast by their beacons are easily found on the Internet. By sifting through the data, the researchers were able to plot the location of individual ships. "Considering that a lot of military, law enforcement, cargoes, and passenger ships do broadcast their positions, we feel that this is a security risk," Guarnieri wrote.