Rising Threat: GPS-Spoofing Attacks Endanger Seafaring and Global Trade


Attacks on the GPS system have become increasingly common and have devastating consequences for maritime traffic and global trade. GPS spoofing, in particular, has emerged as a key component of electronic warfare. GPS spoofing involves deliberately falsifying satellite signals to transmit incorrect information to receivers. Between 2017 and 2019, nearly 10,000 such attacks were documented in the United States alone.

Research reveals widespread GPS spoofing affecting global coastlines and ports

Research expeditions conducted by the German Aerospace Center have revealed that GPS spoofing is not limited to Russia, but also affects the coastlines of China, the eastern Mediterranean, and major ports in Asia. Furthermore, disturbances in GPS frequency can be detected worldwide, even from the International Space Station (ISS). The FOTON sensor, installed on the ISS in February 2017, scans these regions to study and investigate any disruptions to satellite navigation.

GPS spoofing is a technique used by attackers to send fake signals that closely resemble the original GPS signal. This is achieved by using powerful ground-based transmitters. Unfortunately, many receivers, including those on commercial ships, are currently unable to differentiate between fake and genuine signals. China has been identified as a major player in this activity, with reports of GPS spoofing incidents in Chinese ports in 2019. These attacks rendered the ports temporarily “invisible” to external monitoring, not just for satellite navigation.

The automatic identification system (AIS) used for tracking maritime traffic experienced frequent disruptions due to GPS spoofing in 2019. AIS enables ships to transmit real-time data about their position and speed, aiding shipping companies in fleet management and collision avoidance. Additionally, international environmental initiatives rely on AIS to monitor maritime traffic and ensure compliance with regulations.

China’s interest in disrupting maritime traffic raises questions about their motivations. Activists suggest that illegal Iranian oil shipments to China may be the reason, given the long-term economic partnership between the two countries and the possibility of a secret security alliance. The repeated disruptions of the AIS system in Shanghai’s port, as reported by the civil rights organization Sky Truth, have made it temporarily impossible to determine which ships are arriving or departing.

The vulnerability of the GPS system stems from its open nature, which allows for civilian use of satellite navigation. However, this openness also makes it susceptible to attacks. Unlike a two-way communication system, GPS operates as a one-way street, with navigation satellites only transmitting signals but not receiving them. As a result, there is no feedback mechanism to ensure that the receiver is receiving the correct signal from the satellites. This poses a significant challenge for future applications such as the Internet of Things and autonomous driving, which heavily rely on GPS.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO), headquartered in London, was established to ensure the safety of maritime navigation. In an effort to address the growing cyber threats, a resolution was enacted on January 1, 2021. This resolution calls on shipping companies to identify and assess cyber risks in their operations onshore and onboard vessels. Based on this assessment, appropriate security measures should be developed and implemented. However, these measures are unlikely to be sufficient in ending the aggressive GPS spoofing activities carried out by China, Russia, and Iran, and eliminating the ongoing dangers to maritime security.

It is crucial to take further measures to protect maritime traffic from GPS spoofing. The development of new technologies and solutions is necessary to ensure the security and integrity of the GPS system. These measures are essential for safeguarding maritime traffic and global trade from the devastating consequences of GPS attacks.

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