September 27, 2018

You saw a ship on the news, but how do YOU find it using OSINT?

I've had some requests to walk people through, with more detail, how to look up ship-related information, and I'm not hiding any methods, the whole idea is for YOU to be able to loo up your own information for free (or for cheap), and not need to launch your own spy satellite.
(but if you have the chance, you really should - I'm looking at you Elon)

There are many, many, ways to skin this cat. I'm just going to go over one way as an example - this is by no means an exhaustive how-to. There are marine ship registries, forums, accident reports, all sorts of other resources - but I'm going to show you and focus on AIS.

Let's take an article which was in the news and walk you through the process. The first thing is to figure out what is the subset of vessels, out of the tens of thousands presently at sea, that you're interested in. You need to scope out the breadth of your investigation. Here is a good start;

St Helena's cherished lifeline ship to return as anti-piracy armory
Joe Brock - APRIL 17, 2018 / 10:38 PM (original here)
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The RMS St. Helena, Britain’s last working postal ship, was for nearly three decades the main source of contact between one of humanity’s remotest islands and the outside world.
Now the ship, cherished by the 4,500 residents of British-ruled St. Helena, will start a new life as a floating armory, packed with automatic weapons, bullet-proof jackets and night vision goggles, all stored for maritime security operatives.
Renamed the MNG Tahiti, the 340-foot ship will undergo some tweaks before sailing to the Gulf of Oman where it will be used to ferry guns and guards to passing vessels navigating stretches of water lurking with pirates, its new operator said on Tuesday.
“The ship is good to go with a few adjustments,” said Mark Gray, a former British Royal Marine and founder of floating armory firm MNG Maritime. “By the middle of the year we hope to have her operating.”
Tahiti Shipping, a subsidiary of MNG Maritime, bought the ship for an undisclosed fee on Tuesday, the St. Helena government said in a statement.
The construction last year of a commercial airport on the isolated island in the middle of the South Atlantic rendered the 156-passenger ship obsolete, prompting St. Helena authorities to put it up for sale and begin planning a gala farewell.
Before weekly flights to South Africa began in October, a five-night voyage to Cape Town on the RMS St. Helena was the only major transport route off an island made famous as the windswept outpost where French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte died.
The yellow-funnelled ship was purpose-built by the British government in 1989 to service the island and is the last of a royal mail fleet that once connected the far-flung tentacles of the old British Empire.
Its final voyage was marked with a public holiday on St. Helena, with flag-waving crowds gathering on the rocky coastline to catch one last glimpse of the ship that had delivered them everything from car parts to Christmas turkeys.
A flotilla of fishing vessels and yachts flanked the ship with those on board popping champagne corks as plumes of balloons were released into the sky to cheers from St. Helena residents, known locally as “Saints”.
“I fully appreciate the role this vessel has played in all Saints’ lives,” MNG Maritime’s Gray said. “It is not a responsibility we take on lightly. We will continue to treat her in the manner to which she has become accustomed.”
Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Mark Heinrich (Reuters)
After reading that, do you have more questions than you started with? I sure do. First, how many ships like this does MNG Maritime and their subsidiaries have? What about other floating armouries? ...and where are they? Someone must have already made a list, hopefully with IMO or MMSI numbers which definitively identify the ships that might have duplicate names.

Web search engines like Google and Duck Duck Go will help you greatly, since none of these operations are in any way secret or covert, they are publicly discussed and licensed. These are extremely heavily armed vessels moored in strategic locations around choke points where there is high pirate activity.

Here is a fantastic resource:

"Stockpiles at Sea, Floating Armouries in the Indian Ocean"
written by Ioannis Chapsos and Paul Holtom

Google some more more and you'll soon find this:

From those, you should have a list of a few dozen Vessels of Interest (see what I did there?)

Put all the vessel information you can find in a spreadsheet; with a little luck copy & paste works.

I'm going to use the IMO numbers because they're tied to the ship, whereas the MMSI number change with the registration and ownership. Sometimes you have access to one, or the other - always record both, and the callsign if you have it. Keeping a spreadsheet of the ships you've put information together about is essential. I recommend using Google Docs.

Now we come to the portion of our lesson; 

Create an account, and if you're really into this, pay your yearly pound of flesh and get access to more than the free account offers.  First of all, you need a "fleet" of 50. Their basic account would provide you that. The "fleet" concept groups vessels in whatever category you would like, and allows you to control them in bulk groups easily.

Here are all the IMOs from the aforementioned floating armouries:


First, search for one of those ships, any one

Click the result, it will open up a details page on that ship

You want to make a new fleet, so click the down arrow beside "Add to default fleet" and scroll to the bottom, select "Add to new fleet". Name it something obvious, like "Floating Armouries"

Now, click the little person icon at the top right, and pull down to "My Fleets"

Select the Floating Armouries fleet you created previously. Notice the "import" line? That's what you want! That's why having a spreadsheet with the list of ships you're tracking is very handy.

Now you're presented with a big empty box for IMO or MMSI numbers; paste the whole list in that box. Any duplicates will disappear, so don't be too careful.

Import, and voila - you have a MarineTraffic fleet with all the Floating Armouries in it.

Then, you can show only the vessels in your fleet at the map view, and exclude all the others so you're not distracted.

You're ready to follow these, or other ships that match your interests, around the globe.

Did I cheat by using a pre-made list that someone else already published in a PDF? Yes. Absolutely. OSINT is all about that sort of "cheating". Use what others have already blazed the trail with, and add to that. There is no reason to start from scratch, but remember to both protect your sources, and credit them - those two things may seem at odds, because they are. I've offended people both by crediting, and not crediting them. I try to error on the side of giving credit publicly, unless someone tells me not to.

Happy hunting!

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