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Cargo Ships Spoofing Location Data to Violate Government Sanctions

Cargo Ships Spoofing Location Data to Violate Government Sanctions
Zoe Strozewski On 5/28/21

As U.S economic sanctions have widened, and tracking software has become more common, some cargo ships have found new ways to go unnoticed.

One increasingly common approach is "spoofing," or using the registration data and identity of another ship, at times a sunken or out-of-service one, to avoid compliance with sanctions.

One Cyprus-flagged oil tanker called Berlina was caught using this method when it was pinged near a Caribbean island but was spotted at the same time in Venezuela packing crude oil onto the ship. U.S. sanctions prohibit actions like these.

Nine additional oil tankers, some of which had connections with the Berlina's owner, have demonstrated similar discrepancies between a pinged location at sea and simultaneous changes in ship weight that indicate they have been loaded with crude oil, the Associated Press reported.

The maritime intelligence agency Windward investigated the Berlina and concluded that its methods might become common practice for other groups looking to bypass U.S. sanctions.

"We believe this is going to spread really fast because it's so efficient and easy," Matan Peled, co-founder of Windward, 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 true locations?"

Under a United Nations maritime treaty, ships of over 300 tons have been required since 2004 to use an automated identification system to avoid collisions and assist rescues in the event of a spill or accident at sea. Tampering with its use is a major breach that can lead to official sanctions for a vessel and its owners.

But that maritime safety system has also become a powerful mechanism for tracking ships engaged in illegal fishing or transporting sanctioned crude oil to and from places under U.S. or international sanctions like Venezuela, Iran and North Korea.

In the cat-and-mouse game that has ensued, the advent of digital ghosts leaving false tracks could give the bad actors the upper hand, said Russ Dallen, the Miami-based head of Caracas Capital Markets brokerage, who tracks maritime activity near Venezuela.

"It's pretty clear the bad guys will learn from these mistakes and next time will leave a digital trail that more closely resembles the real thing," Dallen said, referring to some of the anomalies detected by Windward, such as the sudden 180-degree turn. "The only way to verify its true movement will be to get a physical view of the ship, which is time consuming and expensive."

The Berlina never reported a port call while floating in the Caribbean. Nonetheless, on March 5, the draft—showing the level at which it rides through the water—indicated by its identification system went from 9 meters to 17 meters (30 feet to 60 feet), suggesting it had been loaded with oil.

Was it manipulation or a malfunction?

While the Berlina's voyage remains something of a mystery, Vortexa, a London-based energy cargo tracker, determined the tanker had loaded at the Venezuelan port of Jose on March 2 and then headed toward Asia. Separately, Windward also confirmed the crude delivery through two sources.