Illicit actors are turning to new techniques to evade sanctions on maritime trade, with industry insiders warning of a spike in location signal manipulation and “deep” dark activity, as well as growing misuse of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) exports.
Instances of global navigation satellite system (GNSS) manipulation, which allow vessels to report false information about their location, have increased dramatically over the past year, according to research by maritime analytics firm Windward.
GNSS manipulation is more complex than “going dark”, a long-established practice where criminal groups switch off ships’ location reporting devices in order to hide their movements. Information is still reported, but the location data being fed into transmitters is computer-generated.
“This is an important issue,” says Ami Daniel, Windward’s co-founder and chief executive. “We saw that in 2021 the number of these cases increased by 5,000%. The year before it was a single-digit number of cases, and then suddenly it was in the hundreds.”
Windward says its findings show criminal groups “have attained technologies and know-how that have enabled them to co-opt electronic warfare manipulations that up until now were only in the hands of states”.
For Daniel, the use of increasingly sophisticated spoofing techniques comes in response to greater understanding and closer regulatory scrutiny of maritime sanctions evasion techniques.
“I believe it’s directly related to knowledge of deceptive shipping practices,” he tells GTR. “When you are telling everybody about vessels turning off transmission, they stop doing that and start doing other things.”
In May 2020, US sanctions regulators issued a long-awaited advisory setting out sector-specific guidance to shipping companies, trade finance lenders and other parties involved in goods shipments.
The advisory – which was followed by similar action from the UK’s sanctions authority – was widely seen as a crackdown on attempts to evade US trade restrictions in several jurisdictions, including on exports of Iranian oil and North Korean coal.
Windward says instances of GNSS manipulation started becoming more common just three months after the advisory was published.
However, the company says there are ways of ascertaining whether a location signal is being computer-generated.
“When a vessel is anchored, it moves with the wind. The bows of the vessel will always be facing the wind, because the wind pushes the side of the vessel,” Daniel explains. “So when you see an example of an anchored vessel that is moving in circles, but that doesn’t correlate with the wind, there is something funny going on.”
Location signals can also be cross-checked against satellite imagery, he adds, as well as clues in the signal information itself.
A Windward paper from October last year cites a real-world example of a vessel purportedly drifting offshore close to the UAE. Analysis of its location data revealed a uniform pattern of circular movement that indicated that information had been computer-generated.
Another growing trend is around “deep” dark activity, whereby vessels stop reporting their location for weeks or months on end. This creates a challenge for companies interacting with those vessels, as it is impossible to ascertain whether they have visited ports in areas subject to sanctions controls.
Despite the lack of location data, Daniel says there are other ways of assessing a vessel’s risk profile.
“First of all, you know how long a vessel has ‘disappeared’ off screen, and when and where they reappear,” he says.
“You can then check that against imagery, monitoring areas where cargo is dropped off and picked up, which in a sanctions context could be the coast of Venezuela or Iran, for example. It is already possible to automate a lot of that with image recognition technology.”
A third concern is a significant uptick in high-risk activity involving LPG tankers, Windward says, driven largely by soaring demand in Asia for alternatives to natural gas. The company has flagged a total of 78 LPG vessels as high-risk; all but three were identified as such since 2020.
“That makes sense because all eyes are now on oil,” Daniel says. “LPG just doesn’t have the same level of coverage, so again, it’s part of that cat-and-mouse dynamic.”
US authorities have taken several enforcement actions related to Iranian oil exports, including a February 2021 forfeiture claim alleging companies were using forged shipping documents, vessel impersonation techniques and UAE-based front companies to circumvent sanctions.
The Trump administration also introduced a raft of sanctions on Venezuela’s oil trading, with the country’s economy heavily reliant on exporting crude due to a lack of domestic refinery capacity.
Daniel says the supply and demand dynamics for LPG are not the same as crude, but ultimately, criminal groups specialising in illicit trade “are avoiding sanctions to make money”.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s specifically crude, or specifically LPG – as long as it makes money,” he says.