How open-source investigators are tracking Russian oligarchs’ planes and yachts
Joe Biden has said he’s coming after oligarchs’ “ill-begotten gains”. The internet can help with that.
As US president Joe Biden stood up to deliver the State of the Union speech on 1st March, Russian bombs hit cities around Ukraine, and Russia’s oligarchs wondered what to do next.
“We are joining with our European allies to find and seize their yachts, their luxury apartments, their private jets,” Biden said. “We are coming for their ill-begotten gains.”
While there’s no suggestion that any of the people named in this story have actually earned their gains from illicit sources, Biden’s – and his European counterparts’ – goals to track down the location of Russian businessmen’s yachts and private jets will be boosted by a phalanx of open-source investigators working on social media.
Tracking planes and yachts has been a pastime of hobbyists and journalists for years, says Emmanuel Freudenthal, an investigative journalist and the co-creator of Dictator Alert. François Pilet, a Swiss journalist, launched Dictator Alert in April 2016 and was joined soon after by Freudenthal, who sought to transform what at the time was a single Twitter bot to track flights in and out of Geneva Cointrin airport, a favourite haunt of dictators, into a global tracking system for planes known to be connected to some of the world’s richest leaders.
Dictator Alert, like many other similar tools, utilises the vast reams of data that planes produce in order to interact with the world’s air traffic control (ATC) systems. Public-facing websites such as FlightRadar24 and FlightAware can be used to track the movement of many flights, both commercial and private jet journeys.
The tech used to track flights is similar to a car’s satnav: the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS‑B) system replaces radar and makes flights regularly ping ATC systems to avoid collisions in the air. The US Federal Aviation Administration, as well as other bodies that oversee airspace around the world, require all flights entering their country to have ADS‑B switched on, making it easy to track planes as they enter and exit US airspace.
However, as knowledge of the ability to track private jets has become more common, many businesspeople have opted out of systems used by the likes of FlightRadar24. Dictator Alert augments commercially-available ADS‑B antenna information with its own antennas.
A similar set of technology exists for seaborne vessels: Marine Traffic uses the AIS (Automatic Identification System), which broadcasts the current location, starting position and destination from transponders on boats. It tracked 268,000 vessels in the last 24 hours, including some of those owned by Russian billionaires.
“A lot of people are interested in tracking oligarchs,” Freudenthal says. “This is basically what these bots have been doing for years, but not necessarily just Russian oligarchs, but all of them – and government officials – from many countries.”
Dictator Alert’s Twitter profile saw an 80% increase in visits in the last 28 days, compared to the month before, according to data shared with THE FACE. The reason Freudenthal believes tracking the movements of government-funded planes has traditionally been important is because of accountability to the country’s people, and knowing what they’re doing with the population’s money.
That accountability has expanded to encompass oligarchs who have been named on a list of EU-sanctioned individuals published on 28th February. According to the pseudonymous Twitter account Putin is a Virus, yachts belonging to EU sanctioned oligarchs worth $1.5 billion are currently floating in international waters. That includes the Lena, a $50 million yacht belonging to Gennady Timchenko; the $44 million Lady M and $500 million Nord belonging to Alexei Mordashov; the $120 million Amore Vero belonging to Igor Sechin; and the $800 million Dilbar, belonging to Alisher Usmanov [figures taken from recent estimates]. All but one – the Nord – were in European Union waters as of late February, according to Putin is a Virus, and could have been seized by authorities.
The Italian software developer behind the account, who asked not to be named, has been tracking the movement of oligarchs’ vessels since 2016.
“There are sites which can track vessels due to their transponders,” he says. “And every commercial vessel over a certain size – which is nothing compared to the size of oligarchs’ yachts – have to have transponders. So you can track the movements of these vessels.”
Putin is a Virus uses publicly-available databases, leaked documents of the likes of the Pandora and Paradise Papers, and plenty of Googling to tabulate a list of superyachts to add to his tracker. “Every time I stumble on an article, I try to take notes about the useful information and add the vessels to my tracker,” he says.
He’s been surprised by the interest in oligarchs’ vessels since the invasion of Ukraine was launched last week. “I’ve been tracking Putin’s boat for about five or six years,” he says. “Just now I’m getting some interest in it.” That interest extends to hackers, who have hacked the vessel’s transponder to rename its call sign to FKCPTN (“fuck Putin”), and its location to “hell”.
For Putin is a Virus, the goal of him posting regular updates on where the super rich’s superyachts are in the aftermath of the invasion is simple. “I want to expose their position and get those who have access to Russia to get the fact out that these guys are living an extremely fantastic life with their money,” he says. “And for all those oligarchs who have been sanctioned, it’s [for authorities] to know what to stop if the vessels try to leave the harbour.”
Unlike with dictators, Freudenthal thinks there’s a more complicated equation to be made about the merits of tracking. “Of course people are going to track oligarchs, and a lot of them are close to Putin, and you could argue they made their wealth thanks to him,” he says. “But a few of them have also come out against the war, and so it’s going to be a balancing act between public interest and also respecting the right to privacy – which even if you’re rich, you have the right to have. It raises a lot of interesting questions.”