Home Threats Black Sea incident: New frontier in cyberwarfare

Black Sea incident: New frontier in cyberwarfare

Russia, Moscow, fake digital passes

Reports have emerged stating that Russia might be testing systems that can interfere with Global Positioning System (GPS) signals by overriding them with fake ones. The system which is notoriously called GPS spoofing is now being feared as a new tool for next generation cyberwarfare.

The incident came to fore in the high seas after the Maritime Administration of United States Department of Transportation issued a safety alert, “A maritime incident has been reported in the Black Sea in the vicinity of position 44-15.7N, 037-32.9E on June 22, 2017, at 0710 GMT. This incident has not been confirmed. The nature of the incident is reported as GPS interference. Exercise caution when transiting this area.”

It all began on June 22 when the master of a ship off the Russian port discovered that his GPS had pointed him 25 nautical miles inland near Vnukovo Airport.  He reported to the U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Center stating, “GPS equipment unable to obtain GPS signal intermittently since nearing the coast of Novorossiysk, Russia. Now displays HDOP 0.8 accuracy within 100m, but given location is actually 25 nautical miles off; GPS display…” The coast guard requested the master of the ship to check for anomalies and even check for software updates.

When the coast guard contacted other nearby ships, it was found that all their automatic identification system (AIS) pointed to the same location at the Vnukovo Airport affecting nearly 20 ships traversing the Black Sea.

This is not the first time where GPS spoofing has been effectively deployed. In 2013, students of University of Texas sent a $80 million yacht off course by using a custom-built GPS spoofer. The students with owner’s permission misdirected the yacht by mimicking the GPS signal. “The yacht’s on-board navigation system detected the signal (fake) and used it as a triangulation point; no alarms were triggered, and the crew obeyed their computer and changed course,” states a report in The Verge.

Todd Humphreys, who was involved with the project back in 2013, told New Scientist after the Black Sea incident, “The receiver’s behavior in the Black Sea incident was much like during the controlled attacks my team conducted,” says Humphreys. Humphreys is of the opinion that Russia is experimenting with a new kind of electronic warfare. “My gut feeling is that this is a test of a system which will be used in anger at some other time.”

The report goes on to describe further details of the incident and note that hundreds of thousands of cell phone towers in Russia are equipped with GPS jamming devices as a defense against US missiles–and also that Russia has previously jammed GPS signals in Russia and in Ukraine. “This is probably for defensive reasons; many NATO guided bombs, missiles and drones rely on GPS navigation, and successful spoofing would make it impossible for them to hit their targets,” it states.

In 2012, North Korea was also accused of producing electronic signal jammers near its South Korean borders. The device affected the GPS navigation of passenger aircraft, ships, and in-car navigation.

As for now, the Black incident has affected only ships, but GPS spoofing, if engaged as a tool of attack, may be disastrous. Guided missiles, drones, smart bombs, and even several other surface combat systems rely on GPS navigation. What if a missile targeted to Syria lands at Istanbul? Well, that only time can tell.