Ships disappear from radars, while Uber and Google maps give wrong directions
The ship that disappeared
Gurvan Le Meur was steering his ship toward the Russian port of Novorossiysk when something odd happened. His ship disappeared from radar.
“First we had a few alarms — losing signal alarms,” the ship’s captain said regarding an incident which occured in June. “We quickly found that the position given by the GPS was offset by about 20 nautical miles.”
Alarms were ringing because the ship’s navigation system, which is underpinned by the Global Positioning System (GPS), showed that the tanker was located inland, at a regional airport near the resort town of Gelendzhik.
Le Meur reported the incident to the U.S. Coast Guard. The U.S. Maritime Administration would later issue a statement about the incident, confirming that more than 20 other ships in the area had reported the same type of interference.
Experts say the episode was likely the result of interference with GPS, a navigation system developed by the U.S. Air Force that is now used in a wide range of civilian applications. They say the system’s signal was most likely “spoofed” or overpowered by a stream of false data.
Who was behind the interference? Experts point to Russia.
There has been a major uptick in reports of GPS interference in Russia and its territorial waters in recent years in 2017. Maritime analytics company Windward has tracked nearly 450 cases of ships being at sea when their locations have mistakenly been displayed at airports in Sochi, St. Petersburg and Gelendzhik.
In 2016, smartphone users attempting to access Uber and Google Maps near the Kremlin reported that the apps showed their position as being 20 miles away at Vnukovo Airport.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agency TASS in October 2016 that he had also experienced the signal jump while driving. No other comment from the Russian side followed.
What do experts have to say?
Some experts believe it’s a defense tactic and is tied to the protection of President Vladimir Putin’s movements.
“Do I think this is a sign that the spoofing is government backed or state sponsored?” said Todd Humphreys, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “I would have to say the evidence points to ‘yes.’ “
Humphreys has himself demonstrated several GPS vulnerabilities. In 2013 an USD 80 million dollar yacht moved off of its intended course in the Mediterranean Sea – with the cooperation of its owner – as part of a test.
Brad Parkinson was the chief architect of GPS, and led the first blind landing of a commercial aircraft using the system.
“There are many receivers today that are incompetent in terms of jamming and spoofing,” he said. “A good receiver can be toughened … but frankly it hasn’t been done. The economic imperative has not been there.”