High Seas Deception: How Shady Ships Use GPS to Evade International Law
The scrappy oil tanker waited to load fuel at a dilapidated jetty projecting from a giant Venezuelan refinery on a December morning. A string of abandoned ships listed in the surrounding turquoise Caribbean waters, a testament to the country’s decay after years of economic hardships and U.S. sanctions.
Yet, on computer screens, the ship — called Reliable — appeared nearly 300 nautical miles away, drifting innocuously off the coast of St. Lucia in the Caribbean. According to Reliable’s satellite location transmissions, the ship had not been to Venezuela in at least a decade.
Shipping data researchers have identified hundreds of cases like Reliable, where a ship has transmitted fake location coordinates in order to carry out murky and even illegal business operations and circumvent international laws and sanctions.
The digital mirage — enabled by a spreading technology — could transform how goods are moved around the world, with profound implications for the enforcement of international law, organized crime and global trade.
Tampering this way with satellite location trackers carried by large ships is illegal under international law, and until recently, most fleets are believed to have largely followed the rules.
But over the past year, Windward, a large maritime data company that provides research to the United Nations, has uncovered more than 500 cases of ships manipulating their satellite navigation systems to hide their locations. The vessels carry out the deception by adopting a technology that until recently was confined to the world’s most advanced navies. The technology, in essence, replicates the effect of a VPN cellphone app, making a ship appear to be in one place, while physically being elsewhere.
Its use has included Chinese fishing fleets hiding operations in protected waters off South America, tankers concealing stops in Iranian oil ports, and container ships obfuscating journeys in the Middle East. A U.S. intelligence official, who discussed confidential government assessments on the condition of anonymity, said the deception tactic had already been used for weapons and drug smuggling.
After originally discovering the deception near countries under sanction, Windward has since seen it spread as far as Australia and Antarctica.
“It’s a new way for ships to transmit a completely different identity,” said Matan Peled, a founder of Windward. “Things have unfolded at just an amazing and frightening speed.”
Under a United Nations maritime resolution signed by nearly 200 nations in 2015, all large ships must carry and operate satellite transponders, known as automatic identification systems, or AIS, which transmit a ship’s identification and navigational positional data. The resolution’s signatories, which include practically all seafaring nations, are obligated under the U.N. rules to enforce these guidelines within their jurisdictions.
The spread of AIS manipulation shows how easy it has become to subvert its underlying technology — the Global Positioning System, or GPS — which is used in everything from cellphones to power grids, said Dana Goward, a former senior U.S. Coast Guard official and the president of Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation, a Virginia-based GPS policy group.
“This shows just how vulnerable the system is,” he said.
Mr. Goward said that until now, all major global economy players had a stake in upholding an order built on satellite navigation systems.
But rising tensions between the West, Russia and China could be changing that. “We could be moving toward a point of inflection,” Mr. Goward said.
Analysts and Western security officials say the U.S. and European Union sanctions on Russian energy imports as a result of the war in Ukraine could drive Russia’s trade underground in coming months, obscuring shipments of even permitted goods in and out of the country. A large shadow economy risks escalating maritime deception and interference to unprecedented levels.
U.S. intelligence officials confirmed that the spread of AIS manipulation is a growing national security problem, and a common technique among sanctioned countries. But China has also emerged in recent years as a source of some of the most sophisticated examples of AIS manipulation, officials said, and the country goes to great lengths to conceal the illegal activities of its large fishing industry.
Windward is one of the main companies that provide shipping industry data to international organizations, governments and financial institutions — including the United Nations, U.S. government agencies and banks like HSBC, Société Générale and Danske Bank. At least one client, the U.N. Security Council body that monitors North Korea’s sanctions compliance, has used Windward’s data to identify ships that breach international laws.
The Israeli company’s research offers a glimpse into the inner workings of the usually opaque and loosely regulated shipping industry.
Dror Salzman, Windward’s product manager, first spotted a civilian ship transmitting a fake voyage early last year, in Venezuela. A tanker called Berlina had been transmitting a strange drifting pattern for several weeks just outside the South American country’s waters.
The idle movements did not make sense — keeping such a vessel at sea costs tens of thousands of dollars each day. Berlina’s movement also defied basic physics, he said. The ship, at one point, turned its 270-meter body 180 degrees in only a few minutes; its perfectly straight drift defied the effects of the tide and the Earth’s rotation.
These anomalies could not be blamed on a technological glitch. Because AIS transmissions are compiled by multiple sources — including nearby ships, satellites and onshore stations — experts say they tend to track a large vessel’s movements nearly perfectly, especially in busy shipping areas like the Caribbean.
In fact, Berlina was nowhere near its purported location at that time. It was loading oil in the eastern Venezuelan port of José, according to Vortexa, another shipping data company that identified the ship through port sightings, and shared its findings with Windward.
The United States is the only country that bans dealings with Venezuela’s state oil company, meaning that Berlina’s oil transfer was not illegal in Venezuela or Cyprus, where the ship is registered. But because of Washington’s outsize role in global finance, many ships try to hide their presence in Venezuela to avoid being ostracized by banks, insurance companies and customers.
After learning to spot fake ship movements, Windward researchers realized the technology was proliferating at lightning speed. “What seemed to be a localized practice at first has soon spread to nearly all known maritime regions,” the company said in a report late last year.
The spread of the deception tactic could be mitigated by the United Nations’ adopting stricter security protocols for the software that is installed in the AIS transponders by commercial manufacturers, maritime officials and satellite data experts said.
The technology to fake satellite signals, either from the ship itself or from a remote location, has existed for decades, but was previously confined to military use, according to Windward. In the past two years, however, military grade AIS transponders, or at least the software that replicates its effects, appear to have become available for sale on the black market, spreading rapidly among dealers of sanctioned and illicit goods.
The war in Ukraine is likely to accelerate its adoption. After the invasion began in February, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration reported an increase in cases of AIS manipulation and jamming in the Black Sea, coinciding with U.S. and Ukrainian claims that Russia was trying to hide its oil exports and smuggle stolen Ukrainian grain.
The Department of Transportation referred questions to the United States Coast Guard, which confirmed an increase in reported cases of AIS manipulation.
U.S. officials declined to say how they would react to the spread of the deceptive technique, for fear of exposing intelligence-gathering operations, but in the past, the U.S. Treasury Department has banned ships from doing business with American entities, or even confiscated their cargo, for violating sanctions.
In the future, the technology could also become available to airplanes, which use a similar satellite transponder to AIS, with potentially significant implications for terrorism, smuggling and people’s ability to cross national borders undetected, said Windward’s Mr. Peled.
“It’s not a matter of if, but when,” he said.
Attempts by ships to hide their tracks are as old as seafaring. Pariah states like North Korea, weapons runners and Iranian oil traders have for decades tried dodging detection by constantly changing ships’ registrations, painting fake ship names on hulls and assuming identities of different vessels.
After satellite navigations systems became dominant in the 2000s, those seeking to avoid detection adapted by turning their trackers off while carrying out illicit activity, a practice known as “going dark.”
But the tactic had shortcomings. Ships with dark activity spells are shunned by banks and insurance companies and scrutinized by regulators.
The proliferation of AIS manipulation has once again tipped the scales in the deceivers’ favor by allowing them to carry out illicit business while maintaining a veneer of respectability, said Mr. Salzman of Windward. By transmitting a fake location, a ship can claim deniability.
The technology behind this deception tactic is also becoming increasingly sophisticated. The impossible movement patterns that Mr. Salzman noted last year are being replaced by transmissions of coordinates stolen from other ships, replicating real voyages.
The result has been the expansion of illegal activity to the mainstream sectors of the shipping industry.
About 40 percent of all AIS manipulation cases identified by Windward were carried out by ships registered in countries with at least some ability to enforce international laws. For example, Reliable and Berlina, the tankers shipping Venezuelan oil, both manipulated AIS while being registered in Cyprus, a member of the European Union that markets itself as “Europe’s largest ship management center.”
Overall, Windward says its analysis of AIS transmissions has identified 18 Cyprus ships that have manipulated their location coordinates. Separately, Lloyd’s List Intelligence, another shipping data company, has found that many of the same ships have recently started trading Venezuelan oil that is under U.S. sanctions.
The spread of AIS manipulation by E.U.-registered vessels shows how advances in technology allow some shipowners to earn windfall profits from commodities under sanction while benefiting from European financial services and legal safeguards.
Cyprus’s deputy shipping minister, Vassilios Demetriades, said illegal manipulation of on-ship equipment is punishable by fines or criminal penalties under the island’s laws. But he has downplayed the problem, saying AIS’s “value and trustworthiness as a location device is rather limited.”
According to Cyprus’s corporate documents, Reliable belongs to a company owned by Christos Georgantzoglou, 81, a Greek businessman. The ship crossed the Atlantic for the first time shortly after Mr. Georgantzoglou’s company bought it last year, and has transmitted locations around eastern Caribbean Islands since, according to Windward’s analysis.
But Venezuela’s state oil company records reviewed by The New York Times show that Reliable was working for the Venezuelan government in the country during that time.
Mr. Georgantzoglou and his company did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Their Venezuelan dealings appear to contradict a promise made by Greece’s powerful shipowners association in 2020 to stop transporting the country’s oil. The association did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, Reliable is still moving fuel around Venezuelan ports or loading crude onto Asia-bound ships in open waters to hide its origin, according to two Venezuelan oil businessmen, who asked not to be named for security reasons. It still broadcasts coordinates of a ship adrift in the Caribbean Sea.
Adriana Loureiro Fernandez and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.