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Mystery unsolved: ghost ships circling off California
Circle spoofing is an advanced form of GPS manipulation – but nobody knows exactly how, or why.
- 'Circle spoofing' is an as-yet unexplained version of GPS interference.
- It shows ships moving in virtual circles while they're somewhere else.
- Is this the cheaper, off the shelf version of a well-known cyberweapon?
The Princess Janice, seen travelling from Point Reyes inland. Inset top right: moving around Utah, in circles. Inset bottom right: back home in Nigeria.
Credit: Courtesy of SkyTruth/Global Fishing Watch/Orbcomm/Spire
On June 5, 2019, the Nigerian crew boat Princess Janice made an impossible journey. Instead of ferrying crews to and from oil rigs in the Gulf of Guinea, it was somehow transported thousands of miles to the Pacific coast of northern California, just off Point Reyes. Even more amazingly, after a while it started to sail inland, ploughing across mountains and deserts all the way to Utah.
The Princess Janice was just one of a dozen ghost ships observed circling the seas off Point Reyes. And circling is the right word, as some ships seemed to ply the Pacific waters in mysteriously elliptical movements, at a constant speed of exactly 20 knots. Except that they didn't. The Princess Janice never left its home waters. Nor did any of the other ships, which all continued to sail the seas off Equatorial Guinea, Malaysia, Norway, and other far-flung places.
It wasn't the actual, physical ships that flew halfway across the globe, just their virtual positions, as reported by their AIS (1) transponders. Some ships were displaced for just a few hours, but the Princess Janice's virtual trip to North America lasted about two weeks. And not all hung around Point Reyes. Some showed up near Madrid or Hong Kong.
Malfunction or manipulation?
AIS tracks from five ships who 'jumped' to Point Reyes, from places all over the globe.
Credit: Courtesy of SkyTruth/Global Fishing Watch/Orbcomm/Spire
The Point Reyes incident, publicized by Bjorn Bergman, a researcher for environmental watchdogs SkyTruth and Global Fishing Watch, was the latest example of a phenomenon known as 'circle spoofing', a refined and as yet unexplained cousin of GPS (2) spoofing. It is unclear what–or who–caused these circles, and why: malfunction or manipulation?
Now, messing with GPS signals is not new. It's been part of the electronic warfare arsenal for decades. Russia, notably, has been singled out as a 'pioneer' in this area. A report by the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) in Washington DC claims the Russians have a mobile electronic warfare team that jams GPS signals whenever and wherever President Putin appears in public.
One step up from mere jamming is spoofing: tricking someone that a GPS-geolocated object is somewhere else than it actually is. The AIS transponders of ships seem particularly prone to this.
Russia has used GPS spoofing in a number of places, notably Crimea, Syria, and the Black Sea, says the C4ADS report. For example, in 2017, 20 ships in the Black Sea reported a position 32 km inland, near Gelendzhik Airport. It's also been claimed Russia uses 'spoofing' to hide Putin's now-infamous Black Sea palace, the existence of which was revealed by controversial dissident Alexei Navalny.
A world map of Russian GPS spoofing: not just in and near Russia, but also in Syria.
Credit: Above us Only Stars – Exposing GPS Spoofing in Russia and Syria (C4ADS, 2019)
GPS spoofing has obvious strategic implications. Iran in particular has proved a quick student and seems to have learned to use spoofing to its advantage.
- In 2011, Iran claimed to have used GPS spoofing to trick a Lockheed Martin RQ-170 'Sentinel' drone, operated by the CIA above Afghanistan, to land at an Iranian airfield. The capture helped Iran clone its own drone within a year.
- In 2016, Iran probably used GPS spoofing to lure two US Navy boats into Iranian territorial waters, where the Iranian Navy appeared to be ready and waiting for them.
- And in 2019, British intelligence warned merchant vessels in the Gulf that Iran might use GPS spoofing to lure them into Iranian waters, as a pretext to seizing them.
Circle spoofing came to light after July 2019 (3).That's when the American container ship MV Manukai, upon entering Shanghai harbor, experienced total failure of both its AIS transponder and its two GPS units. Just before all the alarms went off, its AIS display behaved in a very peculiar manner. It showed another ship approaching, disappearing, showing up docked, and then again moving towards the Manukai. All the while, a visual check confirmed, the other ship had been at dock.
A spoofing epidemic
When approaching the center of the disturbance, the AIS signature of the Chinese cargo ship Hua Hia Ji Hao (in yellow) jumps from the Huangpu River onto dry land. Red: positions of other vessels.
Credit: Courtesy of SkyTruth/Global Fishing Watch/Orbcomm/Spire
The crew of the Manukai reported the incident stateside, where analysts discovered an epidemic of spoofing attacks in Shanghai harbor which had started the previous summer and culminated on the day the Manukai was attacked, just one of around 300 vessels that were being 'spoofed' that day.
It's unclear who's doing the spoofing. Could it be the Chinese government testing out cyberweapons? Or perhaps criminals trying to confound the authorities? Illegal sand dredgers and oil smugglers are desperate to use any means to evade capture. The latter option would explain why one particular patrol boat operated by the Maritime Safety Authority, Shanghai's river police, was spoofed almost 400 times over a nine-month period.
But what was even more remarkable than the sheer volume of the spoofing was its cartographic shape: the ships jumped from one location to another in a circular movement, centered on the eastern bank of the Huangpu River.
Why? How? Those questions have yet to be answered satisfactorily, but C4ADS found an ingenious way to discount the possibility that the ships' AIS was somehow at fault. Analysts looked at anonymized location data provided by the Strava fitness app, used by a considerable number of Shanghai's 10 million cyclists.
The eye of the storm: a spoof circle about 200 meters in diameter. Most positions on the ring move at 31 knots, much faster than normal vessel speed, and appear to be going counterclockwise.
Credit: Courtesy of SkyTruth/Global Fishing Watch/Orbcomm/Spire
Turns out they too were apparently going in circles, when approaching the waterfront. This proved the spoofing attacks targeted all GPS devices, not just the ships' AIS transponders.
But that still did not resolve the mystery of the circular spoofs, which were quickly dubbed 'crop circles' – an allusion to the mysterious figures that regularly appear in the grain fields of southern England.
Do the positions at which the circles are centered offer any clue? One such circle is positioned exactly around the Sinopec Shanghai Petrochemical Company. Does that suggest state involvement cloaked as private enterprise, or rather a rogue 'commercial' venture? Or are the circles themselves clever misdirections, activated by devices stationed elsewhere?
What does seem certain, is that circle spoofing is catching on. Following the incidents in Shanghai (involving vessels close by) and off Point Reyes (involving ships very far away), a report came in from Iran in March of 2020, where a GPS device was observed moving in a large circle in downtown Tehran (so nowhere near any coast), at a constant speed of 22 miles per hour.
Credit: Courtesy of C4ADS, MIT Review
The spoofing occurred near the AJA University of Command and Staff – the staff college for Iran's Army, also known as the country's 'War University'. Again, a Strava heat map showed local athletes running (or cycling) in circles in that same area, apparently oblivious to local roads and buildings.
Meanwhile, the mysteries of circle spoofing–who is doing it, how and why–have yet to be cracked. Reports of circle spoofing near various oil terminals in China suggests that it may be a way to defend these installations from attack – in fact, a Saudi oil facility suffered major damage in an attack by an unidentified drone (rumored to be Iranian in origin) in 2019.
Another theory is that circle spoofing could be a sign that GPS spoofing, once so complex and expensive that it must have required state involvement, has now been 'commoditised': it can now be used by low-power, short-range devices that can target single ships instead of having to cover a wider area.
And that's a scary thought: it could open up maritime traffic to a whole new kind of piracy – spoofing luxury yachts or ships with valuable cargo right into the lair of the 21st-century disciples of Long John Silver, armed with keyboards instead of cutlasses.
- GPS Jamming and Spoofing Reported at Port of Shanghai (The Maritime Executive, 13 August 2019)
- Ghost ships, crop circles and soft gold (MIT Review, 15 November 2019)
- Systematic GPS Manipulation Occurring at Chinese Oil Terminals and Government Installations (SkyTruth, 12 December 2019)
- AIS Ship Tracking Data Shows False Vessel Tracks Circling Above Point Reyes, Near San Francisco (SkyTruth, 26 May 2020)
Strange Maps #1074
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
(1) AIS stands for Automatic Identification System, which supplements radar as a means to avoid collisions and determine locations of ships. It uses GPS (or similar positioning systems) to transmit information on a ship's identity, position and movements to nearby ships and monitoring facilities in a range of 10-20 nautical miles. Mandatory for most seafaring vessels, AIS is fitted on around 300,000 passenger and cargo ships worldwide.
(2) GPS is short for Global Positioning System. It's a system for radio navigation based on a network of (currently 31) US satellites, operated by the US Space Force. The network sends exact geolocation and time information to any GPS receiver on earth (if within an unobstructed line of sight of at least four GPS satellites). Started in the 1970s as a military project, it was opened for civilian use in the 1980s. In 2000, restrictions were lifted, allowing accuracy to within 5 meters.
(3) The Point Reyes incidents were discovered later.
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
In what is perhaps one of the weirdest experiments ever that comes from the category of "why did anyone need to know this?" scientists have proven that the Regimbartia attenuata beetle can climb out of a frog's butt after being eaten.
The research was carried out by Kobe University ecologist Shinji Sugiura. His team found that the majority of beetles swallowed by black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) used in their experiment managed to escape about 6 hours after and were perfectly fine.
"Here, I report active escape of the aquatic beetle R. attenuata from the vents of five frog species via the digestive tract," writes Sugiura in a new paper, adding "although adult beetles were easily eaten by frogs, 90 percent of swallowed beetles were excreted within six hours after being eaten and, surprisingly, were still alive."
One bug even got out in as little as 7 minutes.
Sugiura also tried putting wax on the legs of some of the beetles, preventing them from moving. These ones were not able to make it out alive, taking from 38 to 150 hours to be digested.
Naturally, as anyone would upon encountering such a story, you're wondering where's the video. Thankfully, the scientists recorded the proceedings:
The Regimbartia attenuata beetle can be found in the tropics, especially as pests in fish hatcheries. It's not the only kind of creature that can survive being swallowed. A recent study showed that snake eels are able to burrow out of the stomachs of fish using their sharp tails, only to become stuck, die, and be mummified in the gut cavity. Scientists are calling the beetle's ability the first documented "active prey escape." Usually, such travelers through the digestive tract have particular adaptations that make it possible for them to withstand extreme pH and lack of oxygen. The researchers think the beetle's trick is in inducing the frog to open a so-called "vent" controlled by the sphincter muscle.
"Individuals were always excreted head first from the frog vent, suggesting that R. attenuata stimulates the hind gut, urging the frog to defecate," explains Sugiura.
For more information, check out the study published in Current Biology.
Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."