‘Foxing The Eagle’: How US Foes Are ‘Going Off The Radar’ & Evading Surveillance By Tampering With The GPS

Successive US governments have used sanctions against friends and foes alike in order to make them toe the line. While sanction-based coercion can cripple a country’s economy, the hostile states seem to have found innovative ideas to defy the watchdogs.

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Previously available only to the world’s militaries, technology to conceal a ship’s location is quickly spreading through the global maritime industry as governments from Iran to Venezuela — and the rogue shipping companies they rely on to transport their petroleum products — seek stealthier ways to avoid US sanctions, reported AP News.

Windward, a marine intelligence firm whose data is used by the US government to investigate sanction violations, revealed that it has spotted more than 200 vessels involved in over 350 events in which they appear to have electronically manipulated their GPS location since January 2020.

IRISL container ship with IRISL containers-Wikipedia

The company, founded in 2010 by two former naval officers, set out to tackle a basic problem: while 90 percent of the world’s trade occurs by sea, worldwide maritime data is disconnected, analogue, and frequently wrong due to false reporting and intentional manipulation. The Windward produces 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.

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

Back in 2015, when there were speculations that Iran was storing oil in the Gulf, these tools had revealed the extent of Iran’s storage. Iran had asserted that it had no oil stockpiles in the Gulf. Windward believed the figure was low: the country then had 53 million barrels parked in ships off the coast of Iran, awaiting the lifting of sanctions.

In 2018, then-US President Doland Trump had walked out of the nuclear deal with Iran and re-imposed sanctions under the pretext that it was covertly enriching uranium and not complying with the conditions of the deal. Since then, Washington has employed what is known as the “maximum pressure” tactic to corner Tehran.

The economic sanction that has essentially stopped the shipments of oil from Iran has caused deep distress to its economy. It is, thus, not surprising that Iran is employing whatever method to override the US curbs even as the talk with Washington continues.

On the other hand, Venezuela was sanctioned by the US as it remains opposed to its leader that it considers corrupt and vile. According to the US, these sanctions are intended to ensure that Nicolas Maduro and his associates do not profit from illegal gold mining, state-run oil enterprises, or other business transactions that would enable the regime’s criminal conduct and human rights violations.

The allegations leveled against Venezuela’s administration have been contested and reports have indicated that these sanctions have severely damaged the economy and created a humanitarian disaster. The distress in Venezuela also explains why it is attempting to evade the radar of the US.

According to Windward Co-founder Peled, US authorities have been slow to recognize the expansion of equipment that has been part of the electronic warfare arsenal for decades but is just now showing up in commercial vessels, with major ramifications for national security, the environment, and maritime safety.

Bypassing The Sanctions

Windward used technology to track digital trails that do not correlate to actual motions, such as hairpin turns at breakneck speed or drifting in the shape of perfect crop circles, to identify suspect ships.

William Fallon, a retired four-star admiral and former commander of the United States Pacific Command, said the threat from electronic manipulation has been known to US authorities for some time and is one of a growing number of so-called “grey zone” national security challenges that cut across traditional military, commercial, and economic lines.

Windward discovered one of the more egregious examples, a 183-meter-long oil tanker that could be monitored going to Iraq while loading crude in Iran, which is prohibited from shipping its oil due to sanctions.

Windward requested that the tanker’s name be suppressed in order to avoid any prospective US government investigation. The tanker set sail from the United Arab Emirates on February 11, 2021, indicating its destination as Basra, Iraq. Its global navigation system began to show unusual drifting patterns while it was 20 nautical miles distant. Twelve days later, its transmission had steadied, and it could be seen traveling back across the Hormuz strait at regular sailing speed, this time fully loaded with crude, according to AP News.

Satellite imagery showed that dozens of nautical miles distant, on Iran’s Kharg Island oil terminal, a ship of comparable length and with the same red deck broken up by a white pole and bridge was visible during the two-week cruise. That ship was then tracked by satellite as it returned to the UAE, its path converging with the reported position of the original ship once it resumed normal transmission.

Since 2004, ships of more than 300 tons have been required by a United Nations maritime convention to deploy an automatic identifying system to avoid collisions and aid rescuers in the event of a spill or catastrophe at sea. Tampering with its operation is a serious offense that can result in governmental fines for a vessel.

However, what was meant as an at-sea safety device has resulted in the growth of ship-spotting services such as MarineTraffic.com.

Marine Traffic is an open, community-based project that offers real-time information on ship movements and ship whereabouts in harbors and ports. It contains information on the vessels such as the site where they were built, as well as the vessel’s size, gross tonnage, and International Maritime Organization (IMO) number.

Using the Google Maps API, Nautical Charts, and Open Street Map, vessel locations are displayed on a Google Maps background. The basic MarineTraffic service is free to use; more advanced functionalities are offered for a fee.

This means that it is very easy to track as well as manipulate information pertaining to location if the right tools are employed.

False Trails To Avoid Detection

According to experts, such websites are readily duped since they rely on data obtained from thousands of amateur base stations that act as police radio scanners, monitoring maritime activity. Last year, two Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation journalists were able to create a bogus base station near Somalia online and insert the false coordinates of a real vessel. The forged position appeared seconds later on MarineTraffic.com.

“To minimize errors and always ensure data integrity, MarineTraffic has introduced a series of key actions in the last few months as we strive to keep securing incoming data further,” MarineTraffic’s Anastassis Touros said in a statement. Steps include blocking specific stations and IP addresses that consistently transmit false data.

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

China is another blind spot. The recent implementation of a stringent data privacy law has reduced the amount of terrestrial data on maritime activity in Chinese waters by nearly half. This makes it more difficult to track activity at busy ports critical to global supply chains.

Global Fishing Watch researchers, who employ satellite data and machine learning to track activity at sea, came to identical conclusions as Windward. It has discovered 30 vessels whose stated locations on ship-tracking platforms frequently slipped outside the range of the satellite receiving the ship’s position.

Attempts to conceal a ship’s position, according to Bjorn Bergman, a data analyst for Global Fishing Watch and Sky Truth, are easily recognized.

“While we need to remain vigilant, vessel operators choosing to manipulate their data are just going to end up shining a spotlight on their activities,” he said.

These revelations by the agencies used to track maritime movement could set the alarm bells ringing in the United States that currently remains locked in talks with Iran on the issue of reviving the nuclear deal and lifting of sanctions. This could find a mention in the talks thereby blocking the prospects of a breakthrough. A similar situation may arise while deciding on the renewal or extension of sanctions against Venezuela.