You’ve saved and scrimped and you bought a decent-size boat so that you can sail along the coast. Or maybe drop a line in the water and watch the clouds while people think you’re fishing. Or maybe take friends out for a day on the water.
Did you know the government is watching?
That’s more than likely if you’re the conscientious type of boater who insists on the latest safety equipment.
The federal government has a program that tracks and records the location of boaters, and an organization that defends privacy rights is demanding officials cough up information so people know more about what’s going on.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center this week filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security over the program.
It simply, EPIC said, “exceeds the stated purpose of marine safety and constitutes an ongoing risk to the privacy and civil liberties of boaters across the United States.”
The lawsuit focuses on the Nationwide Automatic Identification System, which is set up to “collect, integrate and analyze information concerning vessels operating on or bound for waters subject [to] United States jurisdiction.”
“We respect the important work of the Coast Guard and also understand the value of AIS for collision avoidance, but the program goes far beyond marine safety,” explained EPIC President Marc Rotenberg.
The data about boaters, the organization claims, would be transferred by the DHS to other federal agencies, state agencies and even foreign governments.
EPIC said the BoatU.S. Foundation, a large coalition of recreational boaters, warned the program “raises an array of confidentiality concerns with regard to the recreational boating public.”
Few boaters, they noted, would be aware that their detailed location information would be handed over to a variety of parties in addition to other boaters and the Coast Guard.
Rotenberg said: “The collection and disclosure of personal information by a federal agency raises significant questions about compliance with federal privacy law. The Coast Guard failed to fulfill its obligations under the federal Privacy Act and also never undertook a required Privacy Impact Assessment.
“It is for these reasons that EPIC is now in court seeking information about the NAIS program.”
There are an estimated 12 million registered boats in the U.S., used by an estimated 70 million people.
“A sailor’s Good Samaritan effort to share location data will automatically enroll them in a data bank that tracks all of their movements,” said Ralph Naranjo, former Vanderstar Chair at the U.S. Naval Academy.
The case, brought by EPIC against the federal agencies, was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington.
EPIC said the surveillance network is believed to collect information on vessels in coastal and territorial waters.
“Transceivers located near 58 U.S. ports and 11 U.S. coastal areas … gather information from vessels equipped with the Automatic Identification System, a ship-to-ship collision avoidance system used worldwide,” the organization reported.
The AIS broadcasts the vessel’s name, course, speed, classification, call sign and registration number.
Vessels more than 65 feet long are required to have it; owners of smaller craft can choose.
Nearly 13,000 vessels already are on the watch list, officials said.
The complaint seeks government records that reveal details about the program and alleges, “This system of data collection and analysis, implemented at the direction of the DHS, is contrary to the USCG’s general support for the privacy of boaters and the protection of their personal information.”