First things first – your introduction. Who are you and what is your OSINT experience?
I am a Senior OSINT Analyst in Cyber Recon for a large Consulting Firm. My OSINT experience is mostly self-taught from writing blogs, speaking at conferences, and doing personal research into topics that I find interesting.
Can you tell us how you developed your interest in maritime OSINT – and why?
I developed an interest in Maritime by accident. I like to use blogs and presentations as an excuse to get better at performing OSINT research and I was looking for a topic that was not covered very often in the OSINT world.
I chose to write a blog about Maritime OSINT and people seemed really receptive to it. The excitement that other people showed towards what I had written propelled me to keep pursuing it and the rest is history!
What is your methodology to research and follow vessels? What do you concentrate the most on?
When I am researching vessels I focus a lot on their behavior. Any behavior that seems uneconomical for the ship is interesting to me and I take great joy in baselining the activity of an area and noting changes over time. If you watch vessels for any period of time you will notice patterns.
These patterns can be patterns of normal routes or maybe patterns of illicit activity but usually you can see something that jumps out and requires further investigation. My collection method is a bit more haphazard and I like to collect as much detail as possible and toss it in a OneNote.
Eventually, something interesting will pop out in my notes and I will dive in. Some of my co-workers affectionately call this “Going full Rae” which may or may not be a compliment.
What are your favourite resources and techniques for maritime OSINT?
Maritime is hard for OSINT analysts because the free tools are limited. Where it is relatively easy and low budget to track flights historically the cost for tracking ships historically is much greater. I usually recommend letting other people do that work for you. Use social media, especially Twitter as a way to gather intel.
There are plenty of amazing analysts who have access to satellite imagery and historical maritime tracking and they will post that for their own research. I don’t see anything wrong with using their research to verify and develop your own. I definitely make sure to give them credit though, because they make my life easier.
Aside from social media, I think tools like Marine Traffic and Vessel Finder are great for tracking vessels in real-time, and if you are looking for specific vessel details you can always use Google and search for the IMO number and ship name to see if there have been any articles or sanctions placed on them. I usually start with Google and work my way out from there.
Is there a big difference between tracking civilian and military vessels? What are the main issues or difficulties of both?
Yes, there is a big difference between tracking civilian and military vessels. Civilian vessels do not have set methods for obfuscating their identities so it tends to make it a bit easier to track them. Military vessels have procedures for the crew to use when switching IMO numbers or turning off their AIS.
That said, military vessels are definitely photographed more and tracked on social media so it can be easier to keep tabs on them that way. A cargo ship or a tanker might not get the same amount of press that a group of ships traveling for a well documented exercise would.
Are there any places on Earth (ports, but also rivers, canals, lakes, etc.) where researching vessels is much harder than normally?
Tracking ships out in the ocean is the hardest in my opinion. When they are in port they are generally stationary and easier to catch on satellite, photographs, and registries. Out in the ocean you have to hope the satellite passed that area at the right time, with the right weather, to capture the evidence you need.
Satellite imagery is often only offered so many miles from shore and out in the middle of the ocean you would be required to task a satellite to go there to see it and that becomes expensive.