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More Than 100 Falsified Ship Locations Cause Confusion At Sea


Earlier this summer, Bjorn Bergman, who normally monitors fishing vessels, noticed something out of place in the waterways of Eastern Europe. Tracking data was showing a U.S. Navy ship somewhere it wasn't supposed to be.

BJORN BERGMAN: We see, you know, what looks like a transit in the Black Sea going northeast into the Sea of Azov. This is through the Kerch Strait.

SIMON: Russia has controlled both sides of the strait since it seized Crimea from Ukraine seven years ago and has unilaterally declared the area to be Russian territorial waters. It closed the channel to foreign warships this spring and specifically warned the U.S. Navy to keep away.

BERGMAN: It's extremely unlikely that this transit could have actually taken place without a major confrontation.

SIMON: There was no major confrontation because there was no U.S. warship headed for Russian-controlled waters. The ship's position, the entire route was fake using AIS or Automatic Identification System, a radio technology that helps vessels avoid running into each other. This was not the only hoax Bjorn Bergman discovered. With research assistance from two environmental nonprofit groups, SkyTruth and Global Fishing Watch, he found phony signals from nearly a hundred ships. They were almost all military vessels for more than a dozen countries, and there seemed to be a pattern to the fake routes.

BERGMAN: There's definitely a focus on placing U.S. and European naval vessels within the contested waters of Russian-occupied Crimea. And the way in which these tracks are inserted, it seems that someone has gone to quite a bit of effort to make them appear plausible.

TODD HUMPHREYS: I originally thought that it was probably Russia, but later I saw that even some Russian vessels were spoofed in this way.

SIMON: That's Todd Humphreys, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas in Austin.

HUMPHREYS: 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.

SIMON: Stirring up a disinformation campaign. Most military ships disable AIS when on active duty, so the Russians wouldn't have taken these fake signals seriously. And that raises the idea that maybe it's Ukrainian hackers trying to annoy Russians by creating confusion with fake routes.

HUMPHREYS: They talk about the fog of war, but a lot of fog in the future, I believe, will be deliberate, where both sides will be altering the perception of reality, using whatever means they can. And in this case, it's the perception of where ships are on the seas.

SIMON: And while Bjorn Bergman thinks the automatic identification system can be fixed to prevent this kind of meddling, Todd Humphreys isn't so sure. He says that there are many problems in trying to make AIS spoof proof.

HUMPHREYS: The protocol is widely used, this AIS protocol. And it's not easy to convert it to a secure protocol without replacing thousands, hundreds of thousands of radios in ships across the world. That would be enormously expensive.

SIMON: There is another way to correctly identify ships, of course. Ask every sailor on board to sing "Yo Ho Ho And A Bottle Of Rum." That ought to give away their location.

[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: This report omits part of Bjorn Bergman’s full quote that clarifies falsified tracks were found not only in the contested waters of Russian-occupied Crimea but also “within Russian waters.”] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 10, 2021 at 11:00 PM CDT
This report omits part of Bjorn Bergman's full quote that clarifies falsified tracks were found not only in the contested waters of Russian-occupied Crimea but also "within Russian waters."