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Expert Opinion: Spoofing attack reveals GPS vulnerability

August 8, 2017  - By

Dana Goward
President, Resilient Navigation and Timing (RNT) Foundation

An apparent mass GPS spoofing attack in June involved more than 20 vessels in the Black Sea and suggests that Russia may be aggressively experimenting with signal disruption and spurious substitution.

On June 22, a vessel reported to the U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Center:

“GPS equipment unable to obtain GPS signal intermittently since nearing coast of Novorossiysk, Russia. Now displays HDOP 0.8 accuracy within 100m, but given location is actually 25 nautical miles off…”

Subsequent dialog with the ship’s master and examination of various documents and screen grabs he furnished enabled navigation experts to conclude this was a fairly clear case of spoofing: sending false signals to cause a receiver to provide false information. Other vessels in the vicinity experienced the same problem.

The RNT Foundation has received numerous anecdotal reports of maritime problems with the automatic identification system (AIS), a tracking system used for collision avoidance on ships, and with GPS in Russian waters, though this is the first well-documented public account.

Russia has very advanced capabilities to disrupt GPS. More than 250,000 cell towers in Russia have been equipped with GPS jamming devices as a defense against attack by U.S. missiles. And there have been press reports of Russian GPS jamming in both Moscow and the Ukraine. In fact, Russia has boasted that its capabilities “make aircraft carriers useless.”

The U.S. director of National Intelligence issued a report on May 11 that states that Russia and other actors are focusing on improving their capability to jam U.S. satellite systems.

Assuming Russia is behind this, why would they do such a thing? Possibly to encourage use of GLONASS or their terrestrial loran system, Chayka, instead of GPS. Possibly for some security reason known only to them.

Whatever the reason, it reminds us of the vulnerability of GPS signals, and of the plethora of motives that “bad actors” — governmental or private criminal interests — may have to disrupt and deceive GNSS users.

And of the U.S. Coast Guard’s advice about GPS and all satnav: “Trust But Verify.”

Dana Goward is president of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation. He is the proprietor at Maritime Governance LLC. In August 2013, he retired from the federal Senior Executive Service, having served as the maritime navigation authority for the United States. As director of Marine Transportation Systems for the U.S. Coast Guard, he led 12 different navigation-related business lines budgeted at more than $1.3 billion per year. He has represented the U.S. at IMO, IALA, the UN anti-piracy working group and other international forums. A licensed helicopter and fixed-wing pilot, he has also served as a navigator at sea and is a retired Coast Guard Captain.