Highlights

  • Increasing cases of ships faking their locations for illegal activities
  • Experts feel spread of technology to planes can boost terrorism
  • Hackers have faked locations of military ships; can spark geopolitical tension

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Experts are pointing to increasing cases of ships transmitting fake locations. Incidents of ships appearing to be in one place, but actually being elsewhere number in the hundreds.

Shady ships illegally carrying weapons, drugs, oil, or some other restricted cargo, officially showing their location in an innocuous place, but in reality, present in a completely different part of the world, loading or unloading banned goods. But this danger is not limited to smuggling. Even navy warships are falling prey. And how long before terrorists use the same tactic to hide their planes and do more 9/11-style attacks?

Experts are pointing to increasing cases of ships transmitting fake locations. Incidents of ships appearing to be in one place, but actually being elsewhere number in the hundreds, according to maritime data firms. This trend was originally observed near countries under sanctions, but subsequently, such cases were seen even in places like Antarctica.

First, let's see how ships are monitored at sea.

Tracking of vessels is done under UN maritime resolution, 2015. It mandated an Automatic Identification System, or AIS. Ships above a certain size are required to carry and operate AIS satellite transponders. These transmit the ship's ID, location, course, speed and other data. Signatories to the UN resolution are required to enforce rules in their territories.

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The new fake location scam is quite a technological leap, compared to the older tactics of smugglers.

In the past, ships used to be hidden either by painting fake names on the hulls, or stealing identification of other vessels. Another method was to regularly change the ship's registration. When satellite tracking became common, shady ships simply began switching off the transponder. But this created a problem. Ships with blank gaps in their tracking data found it hard to get credit from banks, and faced other hurdles. This may have led to the rise of fake location technology.

Now let's see how vessels actually transmit fake locations.

Ships use advanced technology to fake satellite signals. This is essentially a replication of VPN apps on mobile phones. The fake signals come either from the ship or from a remote location. Military-grade AIS transponders are also available on the black market. In many cases, ships transmit stolen coordinates of other vessels to make the fake journey look legitimate.

A few spots on the globe appear to be hotspots of this fake location racket.

Chinese vessels are believed to use this technology to hide their illegal fishing in the Indo-Pacific. Russian ships do this to allegedly smuggle sanctioned oil and stolen Ukrainian grain. North Korean ships hide their locations to export coal, and import oil in violation of UN sanctions. Ships may use fake locations to buy Iranian oil in violation of US sanctions. It's the same case with Venezuela. Meanwhile, many ships transmitting false locations are registered in Cyprus, to enjoy European financial services and legal safeguards, according to the New York Times.

A bigger emerging threat, especially in tense times like now, is the targeting of naval warships using this technology.

News reports suggest that locations of over 100 warships have been faked since August 2020. False data showed these warships entering disputed waters, or sailing near other countries' naval bases. The fake location data came from shore-based AIS receivers, while satellite data showed the real positions of these warships.

Most of the targeted warships were from NATO, and European fleets. Much of the false data showed the warships near Russian territories. This has sparked suspicion that Russia's prolific hackers may be behind the transmission of fake locations. It could be Moscow's plan to portray Western powers as aggressors.

If the spread of this technology is not stemmed, another big threat may be staring at the world.

Experts feel that this fake location tech is likely to spread to planes soon. Planes use satellite transponders similar to ships. Airplanes transmitting fake locations can be big danger, as they can be used for deadly terror attacks. It would also give a fillip to smuggling, and illegal border crossing.

The onus to take action lies on the United Nations. The UN needs to adopt and enforce stricter rules. Better security protocols for AIS transponder software are needed, apart from improved scrutiny of transponder manufacturers, and officials. A regular detailed analysis of satellite data can help spot defaulters. Finally, strict sanctions need to be imposed on ships and companies found faking locations.

Meanwhile, the Quadrilateral alliance, which includes India, USA, Japan, and Australia, seems to already be on the right track to curb this fake location racket.

The Quad is implementing a satellite surveillance system in the Indo-Pacific. It will monitor radio frequencies, and radar signals to track ships. This would help track ships which even have their AIS transponders switched off, thus sidestepping the fake location tactic. Satellite technology will be used to link surveillance centres in multiple nations in the region. The move is aimed at curbing weapons trafficking, and illegal fishing, mainly by China.

Over 70% of the Earth's surface is covered with water. Maritime trade and travel have been common for thousands of years. With modern technology making ships bigger and safer, we now have 70% of global trade by value being carried by sea. If authorities across the world fail to curb fake location technologies, waters of the world might just turn into the wild, wild west.

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