How US enemies “get off the radar” and evade surveillance by manipulating GPS

Successive US administrations have used sanctions on friends and foes alike, trying to get them to stand by the line. While sanctions-based coercion can cripple a country’s economy, hostile states seem to have found innovative ways to stand up to the watchdogs.

The technology, previously only available to the world’s militaries, is rapidly spreading across the global shipping industry as governments from Iran to Venezuela — and the rogue shipping companies they rely on to ship their petroleum products — seek more stealthy ways to circumvent US sanctions, AP News reported.

Windward, a naval intelligence firm whose data is used by the US government to investigate sanctions violations, announced that since January 2020 it has detected more than 200 vessels involved in over 350 incidents in which they appear to have lost their GPS – Have electronically manipulated location.

IRISL container ship using IRISL Containers Wikipedia

Founded in 2010 by two former naval officers, the company wanted to address a fundamental problem: while 90 percent of world trade is conducted by sea, global maritime data is decoupled, analog, and often inaccurate through misreporting and deliberate manipulation. The Windward creates a real-time database of every ship at sea in the world by merging data from many sources with other inputs such as satellite photos.

“It’s out of control right now,” Matan Peled, Windward co-founder and former Israeli naval officer, said in an interview. “It is not driven by countries or superpowers. It is ordinary companies that use this technique. The scale is amazing.”

When there was speculation in 2015 that Iran was storing oil in the Gulf, these instruments had revealed the extent of Iran’s deposits. Iran had claimed it had no oil reserves in the Gulf. Windward thought the number was low: the country had 53 million barrels parked on ships off Iran’s coast at the time and was waiting for sanctions to be lifted.

In 2018, then-US President Doland Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and re-imposed sanctions on the pretext of enriching uranium and not complying with the terms of the deal. Since then, Washington has used so-called “maximum pressure” tactics to corner Tehran.

The economic sanctions that have essentially halted oil supplies from Iran have brought deep distress to its economy. It is therefore not surprising that Iran is using any methods to circumvent US curbs, even as talks with Washington continue.

On the other hand, Venezuela has been sanctioned by the US as it continues to oppose its leader, whom it considers corrupt and abominable. According to the US, these sanctions are intended to ensure that Nicolas Maduro and his allies do not benefit from illegal gold mining, state oil companies or other deals that would enable the regime’s criminal behavior and human rights abuses.

The allegations against the Venezuelan government have been denied, and reports suggest that these sanctions have severely damaged the economy and created a humanitarian catastrophe. Venezuela’s plight also explains why it’s trying to dodge US radar.

According to Peled, co-founder of Windward, US authorities are expanding equipment that has been part of the electronic warfare arsenal for decades but is only now appearing on merchant ships, with major implications for national security, the environment, and maritime security.

evasion of sanctions

Windward used technology to track digital trails that do not correlate to actual movement, such as B. Hairpin turns at breakneck speeds or drifting in the form of perfect crop circles to identify suspicious ships.

William Fallon, a retired four-star admiral and former commander of the United States Pacific Command, said the threat of electronic tampering has been known to US authorities for some time and is among a growing number of so-called “grey-area” national security challenges facing transcend traditional military, commercial and economic boundaries.

Windward uncovered one of the more egregious examples, a 600-foot (183-meter) oil tanker that could be monitored as it sailed into Iraq while loading crude oil into Iran, which is banned from shipping its oil due to sanctions.

Windward called for the tanker’s name to be suppressed to avoid a possible US government investigation. The tanker set sail from the United Arab Emirates on February 11, 2021, with her destination Basra, Iraq. Its global navigation system began showing unusual drift patterns while it was 20 nautical miles away. Twelve days later, the transmission had stabilized and, according to AP News, she could be seen sailing back across the Strait of Hormuz at normal sailing speed, this time fully laden with crude oil.

Satellite images showed that during the two-week cruise, dozens of nautical miles away at the oil terminal on the Iranian island of Kharg, a ship of comparable length and with the same red deck punctuated by a white pole and bridge could be seen. This ship was then tracked by satellite as it returned to the United Arab Emirates, with its path converging with the original ship’s reported position once it resumed normal transmission.

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Since 2004, a United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea has required ships over 300 tons to use an automatic detection system to avoid collisions and assist rescuers in the event of an oil spill or disaster at sea. Manipulation of operations is a serious offense that can result in government fines for a vessel.

However, what was intended as a safety device at sea has led to the growth of ship tracking services like MarineTraffic.com.

Marine Traffic is an open, community-based project that provides real-time information on ship movements and whereabouts of ships in ports and ports. It contains information about the ships, such as B. the site where they were built, as well as the ship size, gross tonnage and International Maritime Organization (IMO) number.

Using the Google Maps API, Nautical Charts and Open Street Map, ship locations are displayed on a Google Maps background. Use of the basic MarineTraffic service is free; Advanced features are offered for a fee.

This means that tracking and manipulating information about location is very easy if the right tools are employed.

False tracks to avoid detection

According to experts, such websites are easily fooled because they rely on data collected from thousands of amateur base stations that act as police radio scanners, monitoring maritime activity. Last year, two Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation journalists managed to create a fake base station online near Somalia and insert the wrong coordinates of a real ship. The fake location appeared seconds later on MarineTraffic.com.

“To minimize errors and ensure data integrity at all times, MarineTraffic has implemented a number of important measures over the past few months as we strive to further secure incoming data,” MarineTraffic’s Anastassis Touros said in a statement. Measures include blocking specific stations and IP addresses that continually transmit incorrect data.

Despite these quality control efforts, two US intelligence agents told the Associated Press that the sheer volume of data has reduced the usefulness of such open-source systems.

China is another blind spot. The recent implementation of a strict privacy law has reduced the amount of terrestrial data on maritime activities in Chinese waters by almost half. This makes it harder to track activity in busy ports that are critical to global supply chains.

Global Fishing Watch researchers, who use satellite data and machine learning to track activity at sea, came to identical conclusions as Windward. It has spotted 30 ships whose reported locations on ship-tracking platforms have often slipped out of range of the satellite receiving the ship’s position.

Attempts to obfuscate a ship’s position are easy to spot, according to Bjorn Bergman, a data analyst for Global Fishing Watch and Sky Truth.

“While we must remain vigilant, ship operators who choose to tamper with their data will only end up casting a spotlight on their activities,” he said.

These revelations by the agencies used to track naval movements could ring alarm bells in the United States, which is currently locked in talks with Iran over the issue of reviving the nuclear deal and lifting sanctions. This could be mentioned in the talks, blocking the prospect of a breakthrough. A similar situation may arise when deciding to renew or extend sanctions against Venezuela.

About Christine Geisler

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