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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.
Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.
Brain cells snap strands of DNA in many more places and cell types than researchers previously thought.
The urgency to remember a dangerous experience requires the brain to make a series of potentially dangerous moves: Neurons and other brain cells snap open their DNA in numerous locations — more than previously realized, according to a new study — to provide quick access to genetic instructions for the mechanisms of memory storage.
The extent of these DNA double-strand breaks (DSBs) in multiple key brain regions is surprising and concerning, says study senior author Li-Huei Tsai, Picower Professor of Neuroscience at MIT and director of The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, because while the breaks are routinely repaired, that process may become more flawed and fragile with age. Tsai's lab has shown that lingering DSBs are associated with neurodegeneration and cognitive decline and that repair mechanisms can falter.
"We wanted to understand exactly how widespread and extensive this natural activity is in the brain upon memory formation because that can give us insight into how genomic instability could undermine brain health down the road," says Tsai, who is also a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and a leader of MIT's Aging Brain Initiative. "Clearly, memory formation is an urgent priority for healthy brain function, but these new results showing that several types of brain cells break their DNA in so many places to quickly express genes is still striking."
In 2015, Tsai's lab provided the first demonstration that neuronal activity caused DSBs and that they induced rapid gene expression. But those findings, mostly made in lab preparations of neurons, did not capture the full extent of the activity in the context of memory formation in a behaving animal, and did not investigate what happened in cells other than neurons.
In the new study published July 1 in PLOS ONE, lead author and former graduate student Ryan Stott and co-author and former research technician Oleg Kritsky sought to investigate the full landscape of DSB activity in learning and memory. To do so, they gave mice little electrical zaps to the feet when they entered a box, to condition a fear memory of that context. They then used several methods to assess DSBs and gene expression in the brains of the mice over the next half-hour, particularly among a variety of cell types in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, two regions essential for the formation and storage of conditioned fear memories. They also made measurements in the brains of mice that did not experience the foot shock to establish a baseline of activity for comparison.
The creation of a fear memory doubled the number of DSBs among neurons in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, affecting more than 300 genes in each region. Among 206 affected genes common to both regions, the researchers then looked at what those genes do. Many were associated with the function of the connections neurons make with each other, called synapses. This makes sense because learning arises when neurons change their connections (a phenomenon called "synaptic plasticity") and memories are formed when groups of neurons connect together into ensembles called engrams.
"Many genes essential for neuronal function and memory formation, and significantly more of them than expected based on previous observations in cultured neurons … are potentially hotspots of DSB formation," the authors wrote in the study.
In another analysis, the researchers confirmed through measurements of RNA that the increase in DSBs indeed correlated closely with increased transcription and expression of affected genes, including ones affecting synapse function, as quickly as 10-30 minutes after the foot shock exposure.
"Overall, we find transcriptional changes are more strongly associated with [DSBs] in the brain than anticipated," they wrote. "Previously we observed 20 gene-associated [DSB] loci following stimulation of cultured neurons, while in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex we see more than 100-150 gene associated [DSB] loci that are transcriptionally induced."
Snapping with stress
In the analysis of gene expression, the neuroscientists looked at not only neurons but also non-neuronal brain cells, or glia, and found that they also showed changes in expression of hundreds of genes after fear conditioning. Glia called astrocytes are known to be involved in fear learning, for instance, and they showed significant DSB and gene expression changes after fear conditioning.
Among the most important functions of genes associated with fear conditioning-related DSBs in glia was the response to hormones. The researchers therefore looked to see which hormones might be particularly involved and discovered that it was glutocortocoids, which are secreted in response to stress. Sure enough, the study data showed that in glia, many of the DSBs that occurred following fear conditioning occurred at genomic sites related to glutocortocoid receptors. Further tests revealed that directly stimulating those hormone receptors could trigger the same DSBs that fear conditioning did and that blocking the receptors could prevent transcription of key genes after fear conditioning.
Tsai says the finding that glia are so deeply involved in establishing memories from fear conditioning is an important surprise of the new study.
"The ability of glia to mount a robust transcriptional response to glutocorticoids suggest that glia may have a much larger role to play in the response to stress and its impact on the brain during learning than previously appreciated," she and her co-authors wrote.
Damage and danger?
More research will have to be done to prove that the DSBs required for forming and storing fear memories are a threat to later brain health, but the new study only adds to evidence that it may be the case, the authors say.
"Overall we have identified sites of DSBs at genes important for neuronal and glial functions, suggesting that impaired DNA repair of these recurrent DNA breaks which are generated as part of brain activity could result in genomic instability that contribute to aging and disease in the brain," they wrote.
The National Institutes of Health, The Glenn Foundation for Medical Research, and the JPB Foundation provided funding for the research.
Research shows that those who spend more time speaking tend to emerge as the leaders of groups, regardless of their intelligence.
- A new study proposes the "babble hypothesis" of becoming a group leader.
- Researchers show that intelligence is not the most important factor in leadership.
- Those who talk the most tend to emerge as group leaders.
If you want to become a leader, start yammering. It doesn't even necessarily matter what you say. New research shows that groups without a leader can find one if somebody starts talking a lot.
This phenomenon, described by the "babble hypothesis" of leadership, depends neither on group member intelligence nor personality. Leaders emerge based on the quantity of speaking, not quality.
Researcher Neil G. MacLaren, lead author of the study published in The Leadership Quarterly, believes his team's work may improve how groups are organized and how individuals within them are trained and evaluated.
"It turns out that early attempts to assess leadership quality were found to be highly confounded with a simple quantity: the amount of time that group members spoke during a discussion," shared MacLaren, who is a research fellow at Binghamton University.
While we tend to think of leaders as people who share important ideas, leadership may boil down to whoever "babbles" the most. Understanding the connection between how much people speak and how they become perceived as leaders is key to growing our knowledge of group dynamics.
The power of babble
The research involved 256 college students, divided into 33 groups of four to ten people each. They were asked to collaborate on either a military computer simulation game (BCT Commander) or a business-oriented game (CleanStart). The players had ten minutes to plan how they would carry out a task and 60 minutes to accomplish it as a group. One person in the group was randomly designated as the "operator," whose job was to control the user interface of the game.
To determine who became the leader of each group, the researchers asked the participants both before and after the game to nominate one to five people for this distinction. The scientists found that those who talked more were also more likely to be nominated. This remained true after controlling for a number of variables, such as previous knowledge of the game, various personality traits, or intelligence.
How leaders influence people to believe | Michael Dowling | Big Think www.youtube.com
In an interview with PsyPost, MacLaren shared that "the evidence does seem consistent that people who speak more are more likely to be viewed as leaders."
Another find was that gender bias seemed to have a strong effect on who was considered a leader. "In our data, men receive on average an extra vote just for being a man," explained MacLaren. "The effect is more extreme for the individual with the most votes."
The great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg passed away on July 23. This is our tribute.