AIS Politics: The Contested Use of Vessel Tracking at the EU’s Maritime Frontier

Pezzani, Lorenzo and Heller, Charles. 2019. AIS Politics: The Contested Use of Vessel Tracking at the EU’s Maritime Frontier. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 44(5), pp. 881-899. ISSN 0162-2439 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

Automatic identification system (AIS) is a vessel tracking system, which since 2004 has become a global tool for the detection and analysis of seagoing traffic. In this article, we look at how this technology, initially designed as a collision avoidance system, has recently become involved in debates concerning migration across the Mediterranean Sea. In particular, after having briefly discussed its emergence and characteristics, we examine how through different practices of (re)appropriation AIS, and the data it generate, have been seized upon, both to contest and to sustain the exclusionary nature of borders, and the mass dying of migrants at sea to which it leads. We do so by referring to forms of data activism we have contributed to in the frame of our Forensic Oceanography project as well as to situations in which AIS has been mobilized by xenophobic groups to demand even stronger exclusionary measures. At the same time, we point to the multiplicity of actors who participate in the politics of migration through AIS in unexpected ways. We conclude by highlighting the irreducible ambivalence of practices of appropriation and call for persistent attention to one’s own positioning within the global datascape constituted by AIS and other data.

Item Type:


Identification Number (DOI):


technopolitics, vessel tracking, border regime, politics of aesthetics, data activism, sensing practices

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Visual Cultures > Centre for Research Architecture


17 April 2019Accepted
30 May 2019Published Online
1 September 2019Published

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

22 Aug 2019 15:51

Last Modified:

09 Jun 2021 13:19

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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