Kyle Mizokami

Popular Mechanics

August 10, 2021


An ongoing disinformation campaign is causing a worldwide ship location and navigation system to falsely identify the whereabouts of western warships.


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 results are “evidence” meant to embarrass the navies of NATO and Sweden, and falsified data meant to back up Russian claims of territorial violations at sea.


The Automatic Identification System was conceived of 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 its position, speed, and heading to shore-based receivers. The AIS system then pushes data back out to all mariners, allowing them to view all of the ships around them at a glance. This gives mariners a third means (beyond visuals and radar) for identifying nearby ships.


Most navies use AIS, though policies regarding 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 ship 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 such as the Strait of Malacca that experience high ship traffic.


Now, western warships are running into problems with the AIS system. 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, creating a case of “phantom warships.”


These misreportings can be serious. In one case, the destroyer USS Roosevelt appeared to be sailing four miles inside Russian waters—a grave violation of territorial sovereignty. Of course, Roosevelt was nowhere near the reported location. There seems to be common thread, though. 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.


It appears that an unknown bad actor 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 pushed out 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.


All of the navies victimized by the spoofing belong to NATO or Sweden, a neighbor of Russia. Russian military and intelligence services 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.


An unfortunate side effect of AIS spoofing is that it undermines everyone’s confidence in a useful technology originally meant to enhance 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. That’s a net loss for international maritime safety, but for someone else it’s all just part of the plan.