Ghosting military ship locations is part of an ongoing hacking campaign, which is causing the worldwide ship location and navigation system to falsely identify the whereabouts of western warships. The culprit is very obviously Russia.

     The Automatic Identification System (AIS) is designed to enhance safety at sea, but it looks like Russia is “weaponizing” it to make western navies appear more provocative than they really are. The result of Russian hacking is “evidence” intended to embarrass the navies of NATO and Sweden, as well as the U.S. This is falsified data meant to back up Russian claims of territorial violations at sea.

     This interference in the global shipping safety system is glaring, utterly irresponsible, and dangerous both from a geopolitical point of view, and a safety-at-sea point of view. Russia’s deliberate actions deserve international criticism, ridicule, vilification, and punitive action. Putin deserves all gets in response to this outrage.

     The AIS was conceived in the 2000s to help mariners keep track of the ships around them. Under the system, ships weighing over 300 gross tons are required to have a transceiver that relays their position, speed, and heading to shore-based receivers. AIS then relays the data back out to all mariners, allowing them to view all of the ships around them at a glance. This gives mariners an additional method for identifying nearby ships, apart from the traditional methods of visual vigilance, and radar.

     Most navies use AIS, though policies regarding its use vary from nation to nation. For years, the U.S. Navy used AIS at a reduced capacity, apparently out of a desire to prevent adversaries from tracking their ships’ movements. This policy changed in the late 2010s after a pair of fatal collisions between destroyers and civilian merchant vessels. U.S. warships now turn on their AIS in areas of high ship traffic, such as the Strait of Malacca.

     The recent Russian hacking is causing western warships to run into problems with the AIS. In September 2020, for instance, the Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth battlegroup was portrayed as steaming toward the Irish Sea—yet satellite photography confirmed the aircraft carrier and her NATO escorts were nowhere near that area. Between August 2020 and July 2021, researchers discovered more than 100 instances of AIS misreporting NATO warships’ positions.

     These errors can be serious. In one case, the destroyer USS Roosevelt appeared to be sailing four miles inside Russian waters, which would be a grave violation of territorial sovereignty. The Roosevelt was nowhere near the reported location. This June, false AIS tracks for the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender and the Royal Netherlands Navy frigate Evertsen mysteriously showed the two ships sailing within Russian-controlled territory in the Black Sea. As with the case of the Roosevelt, they were actually in international waters.

     It appears that an unknown bad actor, Russia, is causing the spoofing by simulating AIS tracks of specific warships in a special kind of software, then copying and pasting those tracks into the real AIS data stream. The data is then relayed to the global system, allowing anyone to notice that a U.S. destroyer is flouting international law by sailing just off the Russian city of Kaliningrad, for example

     To date, all of the navies victimized by this spoofing belong to NATO or Sweden. Russian military and intelligence services regularly spoof and jam GPS, and AIS spoofing that paints western navies in a bad light is a logical next step. In this case, it’s pretty clear that Russian government forces are conducting the AIS spoofing with a goal of using manufactured data to reinforce propaganda claims against western countries.

     The unfortunate side effect of AIS spoofing is that it undermines everyone’s confidence in a useful technology that was designed to enhance maritime safety. Sailors have trusted AIS for decades, and now false information is being injected into the system that could suddenly cause them to believe a British aircraft carrier is bearing down on them. One might suspect that it’s all just part of Russia’s plan.

     If this is not stopped by international consensus, and action, I can imagine Vladimir Putin’s next move. His meddling will show Allied tanks invading Russian territory east of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. His response, before Allied Forces can react, will be to use that as an excuse to overrun those countries with his own tanks. It should take him all of half a day to achieve that goal, which he has dreamed of for years. Ghosting military ship locations will seem to be a prank in comparison.

     Is this really part of his strategy? I certainly wouldn’t “bet the farm” against it as a real possibility.

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