Listening In: The Navy Is Tracking Ocean Sounds Collected by Scientists

"There's a long tradition of the ocean being the exclusive domain of the militaries and the fishing community, and we're more or less interlopers in this world,” says Juniper, the microbiologist who showed me the photo of the computer in the cage. “The world is changing."

While the Canadian military has yet to return a request for comment, the U.S. Navy reminds me that naval ship movements are classified information, and the fact that those movements might potentially be broadcast on the internet is obviously of concern. “The value of having a cabled system is that it releases data live to the internet," says U.S. Navy oceanographer Wayne Estabrooks. “But there are some times where we want to protect information, so we have to do diversions.”

Basically, any instrument that can digitally eavesdrop on the military's stuff is of concern, including seismometers, which measure vibrations so low most wouldn’t typically consider them sound. Both Canadian and U.S. militaries want updates on each of NEPTUNE's five active instrument sites—they want to know what devices are in the water, what needs to be removed for maintenance and repair, and what's yet to be deployed—and Ocean Networks Canada meets with military officials to discuss this twice a year. Though officials have never vetoed an instrument from being deployed, Juniper says the “mutually agreeable relationship” between the two groups is that the military can monitor data generated by these instruments of concern.

"They were also concerned about physical things," said Benoit Pirenne, Ocean Networks Canada’s associate director of digital infrastructure. "I would call it the Tom Clancy scenario. They were afraid that some foreign power would be able to come and plug in their own instruments." Due to the way NEPTUNE was designed, that wouldn't be possible, Pirenne said. Besides, NEPTUNE's deepest instrument site sits a mile and a half beneath the waves.

But it’s clear that the navies—or, the U.S. Navy anyhow—also recognize the importance and even public-safety implications of the research aspect. Not all data produced by the hydrophones is diverted, for example, just data within the same frequency range as ships and submarines. The range is purposefully narrow so that earthquakes and tremors can still be detected—and in the rare event that scientists need urgent access to data during a diversion-in-progress, there’s now a hotline to the military too. Of the data that’s diverted, only a few percent is actually kept by the military (the U.S. says less than 5 percent), and what remains is returned to scientists within the following days, with the intention of eventually declassifying all of it. This all has to be done manually, because, according to Estabrooks, "it's very difficult to come up with some sort of computer algorithm that can scrub the data." In the future, scientists may even choose to install more advanced seismometers that can perform computations on the devices themselves, allowing those at shore to collect specific types of readings without requiring access to the raw data of military concern.

"Just like with fisherman, I think it's important to realize that we are in the ocean, we work in the ocean, and we share the ocean just like anybody else—including the military, whether its the Canadian military or U.S. Navy,” says Pirenne. “So we have to sort of live with the expectations of the other groups, and it goes both ways.”

Still, I can't stop thinking about that computer in the cage—that it even exists in the first place, and how an Internet-connected hydrophone is at the same time a tool for science, but also a potential national security threat.

While it sometimes seems that government surveillance knows no bounds, it's some small comfort to think that, in this case, there is fear in us surveilling them. Even in the age of open data, of Internet-connected underwater microphones, you never know who might be listening.

Presented by

Matthew Braga

Matthew Braga is a freelance journalist and former technology reporter for the National Post

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