Steffan Watkins was about to go to bed last June 17 when he noticed a report about a lethal collision between a U.S. Navy destroyer and a huge container ship near Japan.
Instead of turning in, he turned to the various sources he uses to track shipping and aircraft worldwide — much of it military — to try to find out how the surprising accident occurred.
Watkins, an IT-security consultant in Ottawa, documented the minutes leading up to the mishap that killed seven aboard the USS Fitzgerald and posted it on his website, vesselofinterest.com. “It was like watching a car crash remotely.” Then he finally got some sleep.
When Watkins woke up the next day, his breakdown of the accident was causing a stir worldwide.
“I guess I was the first person to do any analysis of this, because it just lit up the next morning,” he says. “I was quoted all over the place — the Daily Mail, New York Times. It was kind of cool.”
But Watkins has a habit of showing up lately in international media, an offshoot of a hobby that has him daily poring over publicly available tracking data to catalogue the movements of military, spy and other interesting ships and planes.
The contributor to Jane’s Intelligence Review was most recently quoted about the Yantar, a Russian “research” ship suspected of spying on the undersea communications cables that are crucial to business and Internet users worldwide.
Watkins tweets or writes on his website about what he discovers, and says one of his chief motivations is to bring some transparency to the movements of Canadian and other military forces.
If he can find the ship or aircraft — using sites such as marinetraffic.com and flightradar24.com — that usually means it has turned on its transponder, a device that broadcasts location. Broadcasts to anyone who cares to pay attention — including potential military adversaries.
And yet, navies like Canada’s, citing security concerns, rarely divulge that information themselves, even to the families of sailors in far-flung locations, Watkins notes.
“While DND doesn’t put out a press release saying, ‘Today a Canadian ship moved through the Bosphorus Straits into the Black Sea,’ the Russians know, the Iranians know, the Chinese know. Everybody knows, except the Canadian public,” he said. “I don’t really know what the idea of that is … other than hiding what they do.”
A Canadian Forces spokesman did not comment directly on Watkins’ work, but said the military is open and transparent about its members’ activities, “with strict consideration for operational security.” Meanwhile, “we do not provide comment on any information provided from un-official sources.”
Watkins is aided by a network of similar citizen sleuths around the world, including those at major shipping “choke points,” like Turkey’s Bosphorus Straits. A keen photographer friend there regularly posts high-resolution pictures of Russian and Western warships transiting between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.
He says his obsession started with an interest in the Cold War and the many military outposts in Canada during that period. That pastime led him to start following flights made as part of the Open Skies Treaty — under which Russian and Western planes are allowed to overfly each other’s territory.
But how does a busy consultant fit in such exhaustive ship and plane spotting? “I reduce sleep,” he admits with a laugh, while noting his wife is “not thrilled.”
Some of the websites he uses rely themselves on ordinary people to provide much of their information. Marinetraffic.com provides receivers free to individuals who live close to ports and can pick up transponder signals, though it purchases satellite transmissions to track ships further out at sea.
The information broadcast by transponders often doesn’t identify a ship’s name or location, so more detective work is required. That can include monitoring social-media posts — even sailors on sensitive missions use Instagram, apparently — or matching photographs with the blips on the computer screen.
He began tracking the Yantar as the U.S. military voiced concern about Russian activity around the undersea cables, raising fears they could attempt to tap into or sever the lines, at least in the event of conflict.
Watkins suspects the ship is looking for uncharted U.S. military cables and sensors, gathering information that might be used in future.
But he said he could find no instance where the ship actually sailed over commercial cables — which are openly mapped out — despite American warnings. He wonders if the U.S. Defence Department was trying to whip up concern about the Russians disrupting the Internet — sexier than a possible military threat — to make the case for more funding.
“It is overblown, and it doesn’t make any sense,” he said.
Meanwhile, he believes his reconstruction of the USS Fitzgerald collision has provided a rare public description of what actually led up to the fatal impact.
The American warship did not have its transponder on at the time, and the movements of the other ship, the Philippines-flagged ACX Crystal, suggest it was on autopilot, with none of the crew aware of the vessel looming in its path, Watkins says.
But, he insists, anyone who knows where to look could have done the same kind of analysis.
“It’s important for journalists and the public to know this stuff is out there,” says Watkins. “You can track this stuff very easily, and you don’t need to wait for an official statement from Transport Canada or whatever.”