Technological Solutions to the Piracy Problem? Lessons Learned from Counter Piracy off the Horn of Africa

Christian Bueger & Anna Leander

Insights from a CRIC Seminar supported by CBS Maritime, Copenhagen Business School, 26 May 2014.
cbscricThe fight against Somali piracy has sparked a range of interesting innovations of how the international community approaches an international problem. This includes new means of international cooperation, such as the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, by which the fight against piracy is planned and steered; the Shared Awareness and De-confliction Mechanism (SHADE), by which navies organize protection in the Gulf of Aden and coordinate the patrol programme, surveillance and the “hunt” for pirates in the wider Indian Ocean. The fight against piracy however has also sparked the development of a range of innovative technological solutions. Such innovations include new forms of information sharing and coordination through databases and communication infrastructure such as the MERCURY system; new forms of maritime surveillance based on small drones; new forms of information fusion in the frame of maritime domain awareness; the development of technologies for the self-defence of merchant vessels; and technologies geared to support sustainable livelihoods onshore and to provide economic alternatives to piracy.

Developers and providers of technological solutions, users of such systems and regulators met at a one-day workshop organized by the Centre for the Resolution of International Conflict and CBS Maritime at the Copenhagen Business School. The goal of the seminar was to discuss what lessons can be (and have been) learned from the use of technology in counter-piracy and what part technological solutions can play to contain and prevent piracy in the long run. This is especially pertinent in the light of two questions: What is the role of technology in sustaining the success of counter-piracy for a post-2016 era, when the international naval engagement in the Indian Ocean will be significantly restructured and downsized? And how can solutions developed for the Western Indian Ocean be transferred to other piracy prone areas such as the West African region?

Technological Solutions Play an Important Role in Counter-Piracy

The discussion highlighted the core role of technology in the success of counter-piracy efforts off the Horn of Africa. The seminar discussed examples such as predictive modelling or interactive real time multi-source risk maps. It became clear that the fast provision of incident information and identification of risk levels played a crucial role. Moreover, new technologies such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones) improve the capabilities of navies to actually deliver surveillance and improve reaction times. In addition to this, emphasis was also placed on the centrality of “low technology” solutions onboard vessels. Better safety arrangements on ships, including engineering solutions, barbwires, or sailing with higher speed have become absolutely essential self-protection measures in the shipping industry. In addition to this, tackling the economic root causes of piracy requires technology. Developing the Somali fishing sector by improving fishing equipment, training in fishing techniques and the provision of storage facilities was presented as playing an important role in supporting sustainable fisheries. The current decline of piracy in the area is at least partially caused by a combination of these technological solutions and their role in an overall anti-piracy effort.

Technological Solutions Cannot Stand Alone

The discussions in the seminar also made amply clear that technological solutions to piracy can be no standalone panacea. To work effectively, technologies have to be suited to the contexts for which they are intended. Protecting merchant vessels is a multifold challenge. Technological solutions are one element among many others. To work effectively, technologies have to be not only economically viable, they also need to be practicable on board commercial ships and fit into the overarching maritime safety regime. In other words, technologies need to be fully embraced and adopted by the people expected to use them. The importance of facilitating and encouraging the development of context specific technological solutions was therefore a recurring theme in the discussions. The possibility of creating incentives through insurance premiums, better and clearer instructions, better coordination and further developing existing practice schemes (such as BMP4) were emphasized.

Technological Solutions are for Someone/Something

The discussions in the seminar further underscored that technological solutions, even when they function as intended, always work for someone’s specific purposes. There is no reason to presuppose that all those dealing with piracy have the same understanding of how important any given purpose is or indeed even if it is a valid purpose in the first place. Conflicting priorities are the rule rather than the exception. As became amply clear in the discussions, there is considerable disagreement on basic issues: How important and desirable is the presence of armed guards on ships, and how much should be invested in such practices? How effective and efficient are different technological strategies, such as surveillance through drones or satellites, the development of maritime policing capacities in the region, an extension of the naval presence in the area, improved coordination of anti-piracy efforts or indeed investments into the local fishing industry? The current mix of technologies is a compromise between these conflicting priorities. Several participants were concerned that destabilizing or removing certain components of this constellation, for example by diminishing the naval presence in the region, might lead to a revival of piracy.

Technological Solutions Generate Regulatory Questions

The seminar also made clear that the development of technological solutions raises a range of regulatory questions. Piracy, especially in the Gulf of Aden, is covered by a dense web of regulatory arrangements and mechanisms. Much work is thus needed to clarify precisely when, how which situation a specific regulation is pertinent. Even more work is required to make regulations applicable in practice. Finally, the reliance on technological solutions poses specific challenges to regulatory arrangements. For instance, responsibility and accountability for actions taken on the basis of risk assessments made at a distance, with the help of algorithms and/or involving data-mining and profiling, is fraught with difficulties. While regulations are evolving rapidly to deal with these challenges, the seminar highlighted the importance of awareness about the regulatory challenges generated by technological solutions.

What science, technology and innovation does maritime security require?

Finally, the seminar discussed implications for science, technology and innovation policies by bodies such as the Horizon 2020 programme of the European Union. In March 2014 the European Commission finalized a communique titled ‘Elements of a Maritime Security Strategy’. The document outlines the severe threats that the EU faces from the sea (ranging from interstate disputes to terrorism or illegal migration) and foregrounds the importance of working towards more extensive international, inter-governmental and inter-agency forms of governance, regulation and implementation. The communique also strongly emphasizes further investments in research activities and an increased stream of funding in the area of maritime security. According to the communique “The Commission will continue to support the research and development (R&D) activities related to maritime security. A maritime security strategy needs global research and development partners.” So far the European Commission has primarily invested in high end technology aiming at improving maritime domain awareness through satellites or information infrastructure.

The results of this workshop challenge such policies in at least three ways. First, it raises questions about the relation between providers and users of such technologies. Research is required on how to mediate the relationship between providers and users of technologies, including ship masters, safety specialists, coast guards, navies or fishermen. This also concerns the optimal provision of training and learning facilities, and how effective assistance can be delivered for capacity building. It will also imply research into the effects, counter-intuitive consequences and regulative challenges associated with new technologies. Second, the optimal mix between high tech and low tech in distinct situations and regional contexts needs further exploration. Especially low tech solutions which can be adapted easily and embedded in the everyday life of regional populations and law enforcement agencies are crucial for ensuring the sustainability of maritime security provision. Third, the relation between private technology providers with a considerable business interest and public agencies needs to be studied. Phrased otherwise technology is always social and context bound, and future technology and innovation policies will have to take this into account.

About the Authors

Christian Bueger is Lecturer at Cardiff University.

Anna Leander  is Professor at the Copenhagen Business School.