Among the Israeli startups showcased at this week’s AIPAC conference was Windward, a Tel Aviv-based company that has developed ways to analyze and make sense of the massive amount of data available about ships at sea worldwide. More broadly, Windward is breaking new ground for governments and companies to navigate the murky waters of global maritime security. This is a concept that security and other industry leaders have only started to explore over the past decade.
“Ninety percent of world trade is transferred by sea,” Ami Daniel, CEO and co-founder of Windward and a former Israeli Naval officer, told the AIPAC audience. “We analyze and organize the world’s maritime data.”
But it’s no mean feat.
The data is fragmented, and worst of all, it’s easily manipulated because there is no central process to verify the accuracy of the data ships are transmitting about themselves, he explained. “Companies can say whatever they want about themselves. Giant ships can pretend to be a different giant ship. They can change the information they disseminate about what cargo they are carrying, their destinations and their names,” he said.
“Today one percent of all ships transmit false identities,” Daniel added. “That’s like me coming into JFK airport and brushing elbows with 1,000 people with false passports. That’s staggering.”
Here’s how it works: Windward analyzes and vets the data from various sources and creates profiles about every vessel at sea worldwide. These profiles, which are updated on an ongoing basis, include data about each ship’s identity, what cargo the ship usually carries, which routes each ship takes, and any other information available about each ship or trends in global shipping. When Windward’s algorithms see unexpected changes, the algorithms are able to immediately flag “interesting” activity, said Daniel. This could be a single ship maneuvering suspiciously, or a changing trend in global commodity shipments.
In addition, Windward’s data collection and analysis allows the company to track ships that may be under the control of “bad actors.”
Using a real world example of data manipulation, Daniel illustrated how Windward was able to determine that a ship was falsifying its identity to conceal illegal activity in 2013. There was a container ship that was decommissioned in 2012 and “turned into razor blades,” that reappeared almost exactly one year later in a small Indian port. However, the water there would have been too shallow for the original ship to anchor. Interestingly, the imposter was traveling west to the Iran border, lingered there, and then continued south to Somalia, and then Oman. Daniel speculated that the ship was transporting Iranian oil to Syria or some other cargo it was trying to keep off the radar of trackers and analysts.
“The oceans are the last Wild West frontier,” Daniel said. “There has been limited visibility about what ships are doing once they leave port. We’re working to collect and analyze this data so governments and companies will be able to know what’s happening once a ship leaves port.”
One way or another, nearly every industry is impacted by what happens at sea. For example, the physical world of maritime shipments affects various segments of the financial world, such as commodities, hedge funds and currency trading. “These companies have no visibility about what is happening at sea once a ship leaves port,” said Daniel. “They use proxies such as third party reports, rather than being able to measure activities using original data about shipping and cargo.”
Originally, Westwind developed its technology to meet the needs of intelligence communities. While Daniel said the company has sold its solution to security agencies worldwide, he declined to confirm for this article whether the state of Israel was one of Windward’s customers. But he didn’t deny it either. Meanwhile, Windward has extended its customer base for its data platform to include financial markets, such as hedge funds and commodity traders, and companies in the oil and gas industry. “We provide our customers with the actionable data and insights they need,” Daniel said, “whether they are tracking individual ships or global trends.”