Data adrift on the high seas: work continues on connecting maritime surveillance systems

At the beginning of July the European Commission announced its proposed "next steps" for "enhancing information exchange between maritime surveillance authorities," in order to "increase the efficiency, quality, responsiveness and coordination of surveillance operations in the European maritime domain and to promote innovation, for the prosperity and security of the EU and its citizens."

For several years the European Union and its Member States have been developing a "Common Information Sharing Environment [CISE] for the EU maritime domain", which aims to ensure "seamless practical cooperation" through increased information exchange amongst defence, customs, border control, law enforcement, fisheries control, environmental protection and maritime security and safety authorities.

According to the Commission's July communication:

"The objective is to ensure that maritime surveillance information collected by one maritime authority and considered necessary for the operational activities of others can be shared and be subject to multiuse, rather than collected and produced several times, or collected and kept for one purpose."

A bewildering array of surveillance and information exchange systems are operated by different authorities for different purposes. At EU level alone these include:

  • SafeSeatNet, "the Union maritime information and exchange system";
  • the Common Emergency Communication and Information System (CECIS), "facilitating communication during maritime incidents and disasters";
  • the Data Exchange Highway (DEH) and the Fisheries Language for Universal eXchange (FLUX), "supporting the Common Fisheries Policy";
  • the Maritime Surveillance network (MARSUR), operated by the European Defence Agency and "supporting the Common Foreign and Security Policy";
  • the European Border Surveillance System (EUROSUR), "improving the situational awareness and reaction capability of Member States and of the EU Border Agency (FRONTEX)";
  • the Secure Information Exchange Network Application (SIENA), "the information exchange system of EUROPOL"; and
  • the Blue Hub platform, operated by the Commission's Joint Research Centre and "supporting EU R&D in maritime surveillance and situational awareness and experimenting with new data sources previously untapped."

The Commission claims that making these systems interoperable (in doing so "enhancing knowledge and improving maritime situational awareness") could have a positive impact on the "prevention, preparedness and response" to a whole array of "incidents… e.g. trafficking, illegal fishing, piracy, armed robbery, terrorism" as well as "maritime safety and illegal discharges or accidental marine pollution". If "all relevant information" was available to various authorities":

"This could potentially lead to the reduction of such threats and risks by 30% on average. Pertinent examples would be information sharing between civilian and military authorities on the influx of migrants to the Schengen Area through the Mediterranean sea; or that common routine surveillance and emergency management tools around a sea basin could be connected in one 'click' in case of emergency."

Increasing information exchange amongst civilian and military authorities is a key focus - "military authorities are one of the main holders of the maritime surveillance data," according to the Commission's communication. A study carried out by the consultancy COWI found:

"[T]he military community has a higher number of assets than other communities. CISE would therefore benefit significantly from including those assets into the exchange environment… [P]ilot projects… have found that a key limitation to information exchange concerns the fact that much data is 'over classified' and hence that there is a need for downgrading classification levels. A more operational approach to information classification has the potential for a significant improvement in impact of civil-military cooperation."

Previous pilot projects include:

  • BlueMassMed, which "developed the concept of national 'IT nodes' that may in future act as national information hubs";
  • MARSUNO, which "made progress in reviewing the legal situation and made suggestions for a possible governance structure"; and
  • The Cooperation Project, which "calculated the potential economic added value of a Maritime CISE" and developed a "common data model" to "ensure the interoperability of surveillance information systems."

The Commission outlines a number of proposals on how work is to proceed. It will fund a project through the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) "to test a Maritime CISE on a large scale, in particular between civilian and military authorities". In "close co-ordination with Member States," the Commission will "develop a non-binding Maritime CISE handbook", and will "support measures to develop, maintain, and disseminate standards allowing maritime surveillance systems to be interoperable".

Member States are "encouraged to continue work on modernising their maritime surveillance IT" and to "involve the competent national data protection authorities as early as possible".

The Commission will also "continue to review existing sectorial legislation at EU level in order to remove possible remaining barriers to cross-sectorial information sharing," and will undertake "further reflection" on "the administrative structures needed to manage a Maritime CISE". By 2018 a review will be launched "to assess the implementation of a Maritime CISE and the need for further action."

Of all of the seas bordering Europe, the Mediterranean is notorious for being the grave of thousands of migrants who have died trying to reach Europe. The Commission's impact assessment notes that amongst many other objectives, improved maritime surveillance may, "most importantly, [succeed] in saving more lives at sea."

Yet, as a recent Statewatch article noted: "Several cases demonstrate that detection, or any other form of knowledge of distress at sea, is no guarantee that migrants will be saved." Crucially:

"[I]t must be remembered that it is not through choice that people wishing to migrate to Europe embark on unseaworthy vessels (amongst other precarious means) and resort to using criminal networks. They do so because no legal avenues for migration are offered to them."

Closing the communication, the Commission "invites the European Parliament and the Council to provide political guidance and confirm their willingness to support the proposals set out".


European Commission

Council of the European Union

European Parliament


Pilot project reports

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