Between August 2020 and July 2021, dozens of instances were identified in which the locations of U.S. and NATO warships appear to have been spoofed close to Russia and in other provocative positions, according to a new analysis – and Russia is a suspected culprit.
The analysis released July 29 was conducted by the non-profit SkyTruth and Global Fishing Watch and it compared GPS-based automatic identification system (AIS) tracking locations of warships to their actual positions as seen in satellite imagery. The study found 100 naval vessels with suspected false AIS tracks identified between August 27, 2020 and July 15, 2021.
In one case, an apparent AIS track showed USS Roosevelt (DDG-80), an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, sailing four miles inside Russian territorial waters in the Baltic Sea.
NATO ships violating Russian territorial waters could set off conflict. In June, Russia said it fired warning shots and threatened to drop bombs on the United Kingdom Royal Navy’s destroyer HMS Defender after claiming the Royal Nay ship violated territorial waters near Russian-occupied Crimea. According to the new report, the Royal Navy warship was one such ship that had its AIS track falsified.
Global Fishing Watch researcher Bjorn Bergman wrote in the report, “False AIS tracks such as these could be used to create a false narrative or even justification for an attack on a vessel or other military action.”
Bergman did not conclude in his report that any specific country was responsible for hacking and falsifying ship locations, but Russia may be behind the effort.
Todd Humphreys, director of the Radionavigation Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin told WIRED magazine that faking AIS tracks is consistent with Russian tactics.
“While I can’t say for sure who’s doing this, the data fits a pattern of disinformation that our Russian friends are wont to engage in,” Humphreys said.
In the case of HMS Defender, Humphreys said, “Imagine those shots hit their mark and Russia claimed to show that NATO ships were operating in their waters. The West might cry foul, but as long as Russia can flood the system with enough disinformation, they can cause a situation where it’s not clear their aggression was wrong. They love to operate in that kind of nebulous territory.”
While many of the AIS track spoofs appear to mainly target NATO allies, particularly faking their warships’ locations near Russia, a pair of Russian warships have also apparently seen their AIS tracks spoofed.
In a segment that NPR aired this weekend, Humphreys said, “I originally thought that it was probably Russia, but later I saw that even some Russian vessels were spoofed in this way. Now, it still could be that Russia is behind this and that they’re spoofing their own ships in part to throw off suspicion. But it’s also possible that this is some third party.”
In his analysis, Bergman wrote, “Ultimately, AIS is a critical collision-avoidance system relied upon by thousands of mariners, and while these manipulations don’t directly compromise on-the-water collision avoidance, they may compromise trust in the AIS system. Data from AIS has also become a critical source for applications monitoring the environmental effects of activity at sea. The false vessel tracks we’ve uncovered make clear the need for implementing effective tools and strategies to safeguard AIS reliability.
This article was updated to remove a quote by NPR host Scott Simon that NPR misattributed to Bjorn Bergman.