Watch Now

Russians’ GPS meddling creates navigation threat with far-reaching consequences

Photo: Shutterstock

A report has surfaced from C4ADS, an organization that reports on global conflict and security issues, about Russia actively sabotaging global navigation networks to safeguard important people like President Putin and also facility protection along the coast of Russia and Crimea in the Black Sea.

C4ADS undertook a year-long study on the numerous attacks that have happened to the Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), including the U.S.-owned Global Positioning System (GPS) and other networks like the European Union’s Galileo System, China’s Beidou Navigation Satellite System, India’s Navigational Indian Constellation (NavIC) and Russia’s own Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS).

The study shows that there have been 9,883 suspected incidents of GNSS hacking across 10 locations, including 1,311 civilian maritime vessel navigation systems since February 2016. All these instances point to Russian interference – wilfully creating a threat to navigation systems across the world. The agency relied on publicly available information such as GNSS positioning data, official records, news and social media reporting and satellite imagery to zero in on the cause and effect of these hacking incidents.

C4ADS started by identifying instances of GNSS spoofing by tracing affected maritime navigation systems off the coast of Russia and Crimea. In June 2017, several vessels reported erroneous navigation positioning while stationed roughly 100 miles from the Crimean bridge – a bridge that connects Russia and Crimea over the Kerch Strait. The vessels reported that their GNSS showed their position to be at the Gelendzhik airport which is 20 miles inland.

Data from the Automatic Identification System (AIS) – a system that is used to track ships –  placed over 20 vessels at the same airport, confirming that it had been a deliberate case of tampering with navigation systems.

A year before these incidents, the issue of GPS tampering within Russia came to light in a seemingly innocuous situation – players of Pokemon Go, who when searching for pokemon near the Kremlin found their cell phones’ GPS go haywire and direct them to Vnukovo Airport, which is 20 miles away.

Though these could be rationalized as defensive protocols to protect the Russian president and strategically important locations, there are reasons to believe that the GPS spoofing can now be used to deflect signals in places that are far away from any vital asset.

The problem with GPS spoofing is that it is radically different from GPS jammers. While navigation systems sound alarms when they recognize jammers, spoofing systems create false signals that confuse even state-of-the-art GNSS systems, leading to more serious consequences. Apart from deflecting targeted missiles during wartime, GPS spoofing could potentially be used to confuse autonomous vessels and put them in dangerous situations.

By far the biggest issue of all is the relative ease at which Russian hackers can now deflect GPS signals. Until recently, signal generators to confound navigation systems had cost tens of thousands of dollars and required expert knowledge to operate. “But this all began to change over the past decade with the advent of cheap, commercially available and portable ‘software- defined radios’ (SDR) and open-source code capable of transmitting spoofed GPS signals,” observed C4ADS.

These SDR devices can now be used to mimic authentic, multi-million dollar GPS satellite signals and can be manufactured for under $300, making it extremely economical to sabotage complex systems with ease. C4ADS reported that some U.S. government officials stated that drug cartels are beginning to use GNSS spoofing to mask their activities and target smaller U.S. drones with the technology.

“To date, methods to detect GNSS spoofing and other interference have been reserved for organizations with the ability to leverage advanced means for signals collection. As a result, the full scope of this activity has rarely been discussed in the public domain. With the democratization of technological capabilities and access to data, these advanced means are now available to a wider audience,” C4ADS reported.

This is an alarming situation, as GPS spoofing technology has the potential to upend every sophisticated navigation system known to man, and in doing so, can create long-lasting damage not just to military systems, but also to basic navigational amenities used by the layman.