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Piracy is an act of robbery or criminal violence by ship- or boat-borne attackers upon another ship or a coastal area, typically with the goal of stealing cargo and other valuable items or properties. Those who engage in acts of piracy are called pirates. The earliest documented instances of piracy were in the 14th century BC, when the Sea Peoples, a group of ocean raiders, attacked the ships of the Aegean and Mediterranean civilizations. Narrow channels which funnel shipping into predictable routes have long created opportunities for piracy, as well as for privateering and commerce raiding. Historic examples include the waters of Gibraltar, the Strait of Malacca, Madagascar, the Gulf of Aden, and the English Channel, whose geographic strictures facilitated pirate attacks. A land-based parallel is the ambushing of travelers by bandits and brigands in highways and mountain passes. Privateering uses similar methods to piracy, but the captain acts under orders of the state authorizing the capture of merchant ships belonging to an enemy nation, making it a legitimate form of war-like activity by non-state actors.

While the term can include acts committed in the air, on land (especially across national borders or in connection with taking over and robbing a car or train), or in other major bodies of water or on a shore, this article focuses on maritime piracy. It does not normally include crimes committed against people traveling on the same vessel as the perpetrator (e.g. one passenger stealing from others on the same vessel). Piracy or pirating is the name of a specific crime under customary international law and also the name of a number of crimes under the municipal law of a number of states. In the early 21st century, seaborne piracy against transport vessels remains a significant issue (with estimated worldwide losses of US$16 billion per year in 2007), particularly in the waters between the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, off the Somali coast, and also in the Strait of Malacca and Singapore.

Today, pirates armed with automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades use small motorboats to attack and board ships, a tactic that takes advantage of the small number of crew members on modern cargo vessels and transport ships. They also use larger vessels, known as "mother ships", to supply the smaller motorboats. The international community is facing many challenges in bringing modern pirates to justice, as these attacks often occur in international waters. Also, a number of nations have used their naval forces to protect private ships from pirate attacks and pursue pirates. As well, some private vessels are taking steps to defend their vessels and their crews from piracy, such as using armed security guards, high-pressure hoses or sound cannons to repel boarders, or using radar to avoid potential threats.

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