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Cargo ships disappearing from tracking systems after entering Chinese waters

International isolation and new privacy laws appear to be likely cause

An airplane flies over a cargo ship port. 

An airplane flies over a cargo ship port.  (AP photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — The flashing blips that identify ships on tracking systems have been mysteriously disappearing when cargo vessels enter Chinese waters in recent weeks.

Usually, ships are tracked worldwide with the aid of an Automatic Identification System (AIS) transceiver that sends out its position, speed, course, and name, either via radio or satellite. Yet according to shipping data platform VesselsValue, the total signals sent from Chinese waters have plunged by nearly 90% since the start of the month.

China’s increasing international isolation and new laws that restrict the cross-border flow of data are the likely culprits, according to a CNN report.

China's new Personal Information Protection Law (PIPA), a broad set of data governance regulations, took effect on Monday (Nov. 1). Under PIPA, companies must request approval from Chinese authorities before personal data can be transmitted overseas.

Analysts say the timing of the drop-off in signals received means it is likely companies have not yet figured out how to transmit the signals while remaining within the bounds of the new law.

Other experts say sources in China relayed information that some AIS transponders have been taken down at locations along the Chinese coast around the time the law came into effect. This has been refuted by China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs though, which told CNN that AIS stations "have not been shut down" and "are operating normally."

With over half of the world’s top 10 busiest container ports located in China, the global shipping industry relies heavily on smooth operations in and out of the country.

Untraceable cargo ships could add further to the growing instability of global supply chains.

The shipping industry, which has struggled to keep up with a rapid upswing in demand this year, could be looking at further headaches as Christmas approaches.

Experts say even the loss of “minute by minute" data from ships in Chinese waters could have "a great impact on the supply chain." Companies, they explain, rely on timely information about docking, unloading, and departure times to keep logistics supplies flowing.

Updated : 2022-01-29 09:13 GMT+08:00