Cargo ships spoof location data to violate government sanctions
As U.S. economic sanctions have widened and tracking software has become more common, some cargo ships have found new ways to go unnoticed.
An increasingly common approach is to “spoof”, or use the registration data and identity of another vessel, sometimes sunk or out of service, to avoid complying with sanctions.
A Cypriot-flagged tanker named Berlina was captured using this method when questioned near a Caribbean island, but was spotted at the same time in Venezuela packing crude oil on the ship. US sanctions prohibit such actions.
Nine additional tankers, some of whom had connections with the owner of the Berlina, demonstrated similar discrepancies between a location at sea and simultaneous changes in the weight of the vessel which indicate that they were loaded with crude oil, the Associated press reported.
Maritime intelligence agency Windward investigated the Berlina and concluded that its methods could become standard practice for other groups seeking to circumvent US sanctions.
“We think it’s going to catch on really quickly because it’s so efficient and easy,” Windward co-founder Matan Peled said in an interview. “And it’s not just a maritime challenge. Imagine what would happen if small planes started adopting this tactic to hide their real locations?”
For more information on The Associated Press, see below.
Under a United Nations maritime treaty, ships over 300 tonnes have been required since 2004 to use an automated identification system to avoid collisions and assist with rescues in the event of a spill or accident at sea. Tampering with its use is a major offense that can result in official sanctions for a vessel and its owners.
But this maritime security system has also become a powerful mechanism for tracking vessels engaged in illegal fishing or transporting sanctioned crude oil to and from places subject to US or international sanctions such as Venezuela, Iran and Korea. North.
In the ensuing cat-and-mouse game, the advent of false-trail digital ghosts could give the bad actors the upper hand, said Russ Dallen, head of Miami-based Caracas Capital Markets brokerage, who follows maritime activity near Venezuela. .
“It’s pretty clear that the bad guys will learn from these mistakes and next time they will leave a digital trail that looks more like reality,” said Dallen, referring to some of the anomalies that Windward detected, like the sudden 180 turn. degrees. . “The only way to verify its true movement will be to have a physical view of the ship, which is time consuming and expensive.”
The Berlina never reported a stopover while floating in the Caribbean. Nonetheless, on March 5, the draft – indicating the level at which it passes through the water – indicated by its identification system dropped from 9 meters to 17 meters (30 feet to 60 feet), suggesting that it had been loaded with oil.
Is this a manipulation or a malfunction?
While the Berlina’s journey remains a mystery, Vortexa, a London-based energy cargo tracker, determined that the tanker loaded at the Venezuelan port of Jose on March 2, then headed for Asia. In addition, Windward has also confirmed the delivery of crude through two sources.
Two months later, on May 5, the Berlina unloaded its crude on a ship-to-ship transfer to a floating storage vessel, the CS Innovation, according to Vortexa. CS Innovation remains off the coast of Malaysia, where the transfer took place, and has undertaken a number of ship-to-ship transfers in the meantime, making it almost impossible to know where Venezuela’s oil will end up.
Adding to suspicion, the Berlina and at least four of the nine other ships involved in the Caribbean voyage earlier this year are linked to the same Greek company, according to Windward. And all 10 vessels transferred the countries in which they were registered – another common ploy used to make it more difficult to track ships – to Cyprus within four months of handling fleet tracking information.
the AP could not find the contact details of the manager or owner of the Berlina ship, both based in the port city of Piraeus, near Athens.
Peled said Berlina’s activities may never have been detected without a tip received from an external source that she did not identify.
But the know-how acquired through the investigation allowed him to identify other recent examples of falsification of location, including one in January, when a ship he did not identify was spotted in the process of load Iranian crude on Kharg Island while it was broadcasting an offshore location elsewhere. in the Persian Gulf.
While the U.S. government has more resources than commercial companies to uncover such deceptive practices, it will require additional effort.
“This suggests the length to which rogue actors are willing to go, to hide their activities,” said Marshall Billingslea, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorist Financing under the Trump administration and former Assistant Under Secretary of the Navy. “This is a worrying trend and given the sheer volume of shipping traffic is going to introduce a lot more noise into the system.”