AIS hackers create Russian ‘Z’ war symbol off Crimea

With Russia gearing up to defend its captured territories from an expected counter-offensive from Ukrainian forces, a brazen act of Automatic Identification System (AIS) spoofing has been detected in waters off Crimea.

British geospatial intelligence firm Geocollect reports that many AISs of merchant ships have been spoofed to create the pro- Russian war ‘Z’ symbol off Crimea (see images below).

The ‘Z’ symbol has become the de facto symbol of support for the Russian ‘special military operation’ against Ukraine and is seen as a rallying point of expression of defiance against Ukraine and the west.

“It is highly likely that this is a deliberate information operation by a pro-Russian actor (possibly Russian military psychological operations) ahead of an anticipated Ukrainian counter offence and/or in celebration of Russia’s proclaimed victory over Bakhmut,” Geocollect suggested in a note to clients.

Geocollect suggested the perpetrator behind the spoofing used radio frequency signals to mimic a true signal, causing the signal from the vessel to display false information.

This pattern started to emerge from May 14. Vessel speeds were recorded as high as 102 knots with no variation for tide and weather, clearly suggesting spoofing.

Geocollect warned that spoofing of AIS data increases the risk of vessel collisions and accidents.

“It is likely this is designed to increase pro-Russian audiences’ morale, as well as antagonise Ukrainian and NATO audiences. The message seems clear: ‘Crimea is Russian’,” Geocollect argued.

Messing with AIS has increased dramatically since the invasion of Ukraine and the tripling in size of the so-called dark fleet moving illicit oil from Russia, Iran and Venezuela around the world.

“Ultimately, the paramount solution would be global tracking by space-based sensors that are not beholden to signal transmission,” argued Taylor Nicholls, director of maritime product management, government at space-based maritime data firm Spire Global, in an in-depth feature on AIS carried by sister title Splash Extra last month.

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