Sea Transportation: The Curse Of Too Many Eyes


January 21, 2021: One of the cheapest and most effective ways to deal with terrorism and groups that support them are to use non-government volunteer organizations that have the ability to detect illegal activity that government agencies miss or have not got the resources to track. This use of private informants has long been done by police, intelligence agencies and groups seeking to build a case against criminal activity. Two recent examples of this are the several groups and many individuals who had Internet or language skills that enabled them to detect many hacking or Islamic terrorist efforts before government agencies could. A more current example are groups opposed to Iranian efforts to build nuclear weapons. The most effective of these, UANI (United Against Nuclear Iran) is a registered non-profit organization founded in 2008 by several former American diplomats to increase the monitoring of Iranian smuggling activities by using a growing network of volunteers and organizations able to spot and quickly identify suspicious activity by Iranian ships. With worldwide availability of smartphones and the Internet, groups like UANI can establish databases of suspicious and confirmed Iran shipping activity that are not only available to government agencies but are used by UANI to report to shipping companies that one of their ships is acting in a suspicious manner. That usually results in quick action before an illegal transaction takes place and the shipping company is held responsible for it. Many shipping companies simply arrange jobs for lots of ships they do not own and these ships are free to take other jobs and some of those involve smuggling. Without groups like UANI a lot more ships would be tempted to make some extra money participating in Iranian oil smuggling. This usually involves turning off your AIS (Automated Identification System) ship tracker long enough to rendezvous with an Iranian tanker at sea and take on Iranian oil for a customer willing to buy some cut-rate oil that cannot be traced to Iran. Groups like UANI provide the verifiable link. That has made it harder to Iran to smuggle oil. Iran can retaliate with threats of violence against the informants or even lawsuit by pro-Iran foreign groups. That has not worked against UANI because this group is a registered non-profit run by former American diplomats and other officials that are based in the United States. For groups like this the U.S. government will even intervene against those seeking to cripple UANI with lawsuits. This intervention works by claiming such legal actions threatens U.S. national security by potentially forcing defendants with access to classified data to testify about it. This sort of intervention does not happen often, and five times it has happened were not overturned on appeal. This made it more difficult to use “lawfare” against groups that annoy nations hostile to the United States. In 2019, Iran declared UANI a terrorist organization. This was an empty gesture and usually a sign that Iran had, for the moment, run out of ideas on how to shut down UANI.

Iran was back at the oil smuggling game in a big way after the U.S. revived economic sanctions in 2018 and banned the export of Iranian oil. Iran revived its earlier oil smuggling techniques and in early 2019 there was embarrassing evidence of it. In January 2019 a storm hit the Syrian coast and an Indian tanker (Tour 2) that had just delivered Iranian oil to Syria went to sea despite, or perhaps because of, the bad weather. As the ship was leaving the storm drove the tanker ashore. Tugs did not arrive until April to pull the tanker off the beach near the Syrian port of Latakia. It soon became clear what had happened here. During late December 2018, Tour 2 loaded its oil cargo in an Iranian port and after it exited the Suez Canal it turned off its AIS, which allows ship owners and their customers to track the progress of large ships. With the Indian shipping company exposed as illegally smuggling oil to Syria, the ensuring greater scrutiny of ships making deliveries to Syria there meant there have been no more illegal oil tanker visits to Syria this year and there is a very visible oil shortage in most of the country. Iran has resorted to smuggling oil in via truck from Iran to Syria but this is not sufficient to make up for the deliveries via seagoing tankers.

The primary technical deception these days is having ships carrying contraband turn off their AIS transponder. AIS was originally developed to make it easier to track ships at sea and was rapidly adopted by most large commercial vessels in the 1990s. AIS is essentially an automatic radio beacon (transponder) that, when it receives a signal from a nearby AIS equipped ship, responds with the ship's identity, course, and speed. This is meant to enable AIS ships to avoid collisions with each other. The original AIS only had a range of 20-35 kilometers but by 2006 space satellites were developed that could track AIS transmissions worldwide. Commercial ships have become very dependent on AIS, which has greatly reduced collisions, and crew anxiety, at sea. After 2000 international agreements mandated that ships larger than 300 tons, and all passenger ships, carry and use AIS at all times.

While this made it practical to track all high seas commercial traffic, it was also exploited by smugglers and pirates. Some ships traveled (in violation of international law) with AIS and other trackers turned off. Usually, only criminals turned these devices off, and this was often discovered when navies spotted one of these silent (AIS not broadcasting) ships at sea. It didn’t take long for some intelligence agencies, especially those with ocean surveillance space satellites and lots of ships and subs at sea, to exploit the “silent AIS” ploy to create better ways to track smugglers by noting when some ships turn off their trackers and then turn them on again as they are about to enter a port (or some other area where AIS use is mandatory). Some nations, like Iran and North Korea, have tankers and cargo ships that are often found “running dark.” Naturally, intelligence agencies developed methods to take advantage of this and a growing number of smugglers, usually North Korean, are detected and tracked because of AIS manipulation. Iran had an easier time concealing arms smuggling because they could use smaller ships. Actually, for getting arms to Shia rebels in Yemen Iran used a lot of small ships that are not required to use AIS. These could be, and were, tracked by satellite but it was more difficult.

Oil smuggling is another matter as large ships (tankers) are used and they are easier to spot from orbital space (or by recon aircraft and UAVs). The problem the American intel agencies had was that even with radar and photo satellites and a lot of warships and maritime patrol aircraft at sea, there were a lot of areas that could not be monitored 24/7 and Iran learned to take advantage of that. Groups like UANI mobilize the efforts of many civilians willing to report suspicious activity and that has made a difference.

Intel agencies take publicly available AIS monitoring date and combine it an analysis of the thousands of satellite photos available each day from commercial satellites. Using software that can scan these digital photos and match ship position data with current AIS data made it easier to identify who is misbehaving and go after them. UANI data identifies a lot of ships the intel agency efforts missed and all this has been bad news for Iranian oil smuggling efforts. The Iranians keep coming up with countermeasures but not enough to increase their illegal oil exports substantially.

Before AIS came along most large ships carried (and still carry) INMARSAT, which enables shipping companies to keep track of their vessels, no matter where they are on the planet. INMARSAT became available in the 1980s and uses a system of satellites which transmit AIS-like signals to anywhere on the oceans. It only costs a few cents to send an INMARSAT signal to one of your ships, and a few cents more to receive a reply. The trackers and satellite-based navigation systems in general soon proved invaluable by preventing collisions or running into reefs, rocks, or (in bad weather) coastline.

The smugglers soon responded to intel agency tracking AIS activity with new tricks. Back in 2012, Iran was caught hacking AIS signals. Iran was sending false AIS signals to assist its smuggling operations. After 2012 security researchers found even more ways to hack AIS and called for changes in the AIS software to make more difficult to spoof. Iran keeps working on new spoofing methods and has the technical people and tools to do so.

Iran has been working for some time to come up with ways to confuse the international ship tracking system, mainly to support their arms smuggling activities. These “maritime security technologies” were developed as a safety feature and have proved valuable in other ways as well by providing the positions of ships caught in storms or taken by pirates. All ships now use GPS coordinates to record location and constantly report that back to the home office. Iran exploited this by having two of its ships trade INMARSAT IDs while they are near each other, leaving the U.S., or anyone else checking INMARSAT data, unable to track ships that have been switched. Well, for a while at least. Once the intel people caught onto this scam, they developed ways to counter it. This is very much a matter of move and counter-move when it comes to exploiting or creating AIS vulnerabilities.

Iranian abuse of the AIS system was not appreciated by the shipping companies and ship crews. The Iranians have been found moving tankers around the Persian Gulf with AIS turned off. The Iranians do this in other parts of the world where there is a lot of ship traffic. This puts ships of many nations at risk and despite Iranian denials, there are enough ships reporting encounters with Iranian ships “running dark” to confirm what Iran is doing. All this outlaw activity turned more and more former allies, or neutrals, against Iran. This sort of bad behavior turned a lot more people living near oil ports or with kin on ship crews to act on the UANI ability to accept tips sent via cellphones or the Internet. This expansion of the informants available has been a big problem for Islamic terrorists and criminal gangs worldwide because so many former or potential victims could anonymously report useful information.


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