Imagine the chaos and destruction that can be caused in modern warfare if a guided missile can be misdirected by a false GPS signal. That may well be the goal of Russian cyber warfare engineers, as they aim to nullify a longtime U.S. advantage. It’s called GPS Spoofing, and it may be about to arrive on the battlefield.
$5,000 Taxi Rides
The issue received attention this week because Russian taxi passengers have been tweeting about comically high fares in taxicabs in Moscow. Some were presented fares as high as $5,000 for rides from the suburbs to downtown. The taxi meters use GPS to determine fares, and they had registered signals indicating the cars were in distant provinces or countries. One car registered as being in Romania.
The taxi companies blamed the errors on the Kremlin, citing an article in the Russian news outlet Vedemosti. Last year, Gregory Bakunov, an employee at Yandex, Russia’s largest technology company who blogs under the name “Bobuk,” tested the system. He drove around Moscow with several GPS receivers and a frequency analyzer. Bakunov’s tests showed that the Kremlin broadcasts spurious GPS ground station signals identifying the Kremlin as either Vnukovo or Domededovo, the two Moscow airports.
If Russia can reliably spoof GPS ground stations and satellites, the implication for U.S. war fighting technology is horrendous. Imagine the devastation if a U.S. guided missile programmed to strike a Taliban base were misdirected to hit an Afghan city instead.
The Kremlin probably started using the airport identification signals to block drone traffic. Most drone manufacturers use geo-fencing to prevent their drones flying near airports and other restricted locations. Russian security officials presumably feel more confident using false airport geo-fencing to restrict Kremlin airspace than entering the Kremlin’s actual coordinates. After all, for decades in the old Soviet Union, both street maps and telephone directories were considered classified documents.
Given the widespread use of GPS guidance in NATO guided missiles and smart bombs, the larger security implications of giving a “false address” for the Kremlin are obvious.
GPS systems work by triangulating ground signals with satellite signals to determine location. From NASA’s “Space Place” kids page comes this simple explanation. The GPS system “is made up of three parts: satellites, ground stations, and receivers.”
“Satellites act like the stars in constellations—we know where they are supposed to be at any given time. The ground stations use radar to make sure they are actually where we think they are. A receiver, like you might find in your phone, is constantly listening for a signal from these satellites. The receiver figures out how far away they are from some of them. Once the receiver calculates its distance from four or more satellites, it knows exactly where you are.”
GPS spoofing imitates either a ground station or a satellite, overriding the signal with one from a decoy transmitter. Dr. Todd Humphreys, Associate Professor of Aerospace Engineering at University of Texas at Austin, has been warning of the danger for years. He was quoted in the New Scientist in August: “In 2013, he showed how a superyacht with state-of-the-art navigation could be lured off-course by GPS spoofing. ‘The receiver’s behavior in the Black Sea incident was much like during the controlled attacks my team conducted.’”
Dr. Humphreys was referring to a large scale GPS failure in June 2017 in the Black Sea. More than 20 ships reported that their navigational systems indicated they were 20 miles inland, at the Gelendzhik airport, instead of in waters near the port of Novorossiysk. There is concern that Russia is experimenting with GPS spoofing as a cyber-weapon, and the Black Sea incident was a major test of the spoofing system.
Simple Doomsday Device
According to Dr. Humphreys, it is relatively simple to build a transmitter, with off-the-shelf hardware and software available from the internet. From the New Scientist: “Nor does it require much power. Satellite signals are very weak – about 20 watts from 20,000 miles away – so a one-watt transmitter on a hilltop, plane or drone is enough to spoof everything out to the horizon.”
If Russia can reliably spoof GPS ground stations and satellites, the implication for U.S. war fighting technology is horrendous. Imagine the devastation if a U.S. guided missile programmed to strike a Taliban base were misdirected to hit an Afghan city instead. Or if a guided missile cruiser in the Yellow Sea were spoofed into calculating its position half a degree latitude north of its actual location.
Imagine likewise what would happen in a busy shipping channel if only the most modern ships were equipped with sophisticated anti-spoofing technology. With one simple stroke and inexpensive technology, Russia could upend the underpinnings of American weapons, international alliances, and the international economy. It would set our technological progress back by decades. Let’s hope the solution is as simple as the spoofing.