Merchant shipping lacks safety net as GPS disruptions intensify
In the second part of this double feature, Katherine Dunn investigates an emerging security risk for the shipping industry, as maritime authorities report a rising number of GPS failures
Interrupting GPS— even the GPS of a large vessel — requires just three simple steps.
“Disrupting GPS signals into these vessels is as easy as buying a GPS jammer off the Internet, hooking this to an amplifier and an antenna, and pointing the antenna at the intended target vessel,” says Todd Humphreys, who directs the Radionavigation Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin.
The system behind GPS is straightforward. There are at least 24 active GPS satellites circling the earth, many equipped with atomic clocks. At any point, a receiver should be within sight of four of them. A receptor then determines from those signals where it is located, and at what time.
Part 1: Cyber threats to shipping grow in East Mediterranean
The system is still maintained by the US Air Force. While regional alternatives exist, including both Chinese and Russian systems, GPS has come to be used globally by every conceivable industry for nearly every conceivable purpose.
The problem is that those signals are surprisingly weak: anything from averse “space weather” to a conflicting signal can disrupt them. As a result, GPS jamming is a simple point and shoot operation.
GPS spoofing is more difficult to achieve, and still largely the domain of nation-states. It is also more dangerous, producing conflicting locations that, if subtle, can insistently lead a vessel off course without detection.
The largest risk, however, is the sheer scale of the disruptions to a system that is often taken for granted.
Between January 2016 and December 2017, more than 250,000 incidences of disruption, whether accidental or intentional, were detected by Strike3, an EU-funded project for tracking disruptions to GPS and other satellite-based systems.
Outside of military circles, experts say, there is little awareness that a GPS signal can be lost or misdirected.
“What we have generally seen [is] that disruption is getting more frequent, and the disruption devices are getting more sophisticated,” says Dana Goward, President of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation, and a former civil servant in the US Maritime Authority. “Every time we think there’s a safeguard, or an obstacle to folks messing with it… they overcome it.”
Costly misadventure, existential risks
The risks from GPS jamming and spoofing are countless — accidents, collisions, confusion, and other costly mistakes — not to mention the risk of straying into contested waters and military conflicts.
Take the Suez Canal. One of the world’s key transit choke points, the canal forms a crucial link from Europe to Asia. In 2017, nearly 780 million barrels of crude passed through the canal, or about 2.13 million b/d, according to the Suez Canal Authority.
“A spoofing or jamming attack in a congested shipping lane in poor weather could cause a collision between large ships similar to the collision between the USS Fitzgerald and the ACX Crystal,” says Humphreys. That incident, between a US naval ship and a Philippine container ship off the coast of Japan in June 2017, caused seven deaths.
But the largest risk would not be in a canal — where other visual cues exist — but at open sea, where spoofing might not be immediately detected, and other forms of navigation are more difficult.
The larger risk, however, goes beyond a one-off disaster. As conflict increasingly takes the form of “hybrid warfare” involving cyber attack, the digitized commercial trade faces huge risks.
Outside of navies, few vessels have full back-up systems to GPS, or robust crew training in purely analogue navigation methods that haven’t been widely used in decades.
“Virtually all large non-military seagoing vessels… have only standard single-frequency GPS receivers onboard, with no special protection against jamming and spoofing,” says Humphreys.
Analogue methods and extensive back-up systems have been maintained by navies, and the risk of GPS disruption is widely known in military circles. This is not the case in commercial shipping.
No ship owners contacted for this article said they were aware of involuntary disruptions of GPS in the East Mediterranean.
Taking attention away from just operating a large vessel, even when everything is going smoothly, also presents a challenge to improving the industry’s resilience to potential GPS disturbance.
“Unless a big accident [occurs] that can be traced to GPS spoofing, the attention of [the crew] will be elsewhere,” says Sebastian Bruns, head of the Center for Maritime Strategy and Security at the University of Kiel.
Tech and training needed
There are practical ways to limit the risk of jamming or spoofing. But to really safeguard the satellite systems on which we have come to rely, governments will have to provide back-up.
The first step needs to be an awareness among crews that GPS can be purposely disrupted, and why. Planning for an outage requires preparing crew to navigate using alternate, often traditional methods, particularly at open sea, where there are no obvious visual cues to help with navigation.
Hardware can also help, from GPS receptors that only point to the sky — making it more difficult for them to receive interrupting signals by land — to counter-jamming technology, largely used by navies.
“These civilian ships, they have no defense for these kinds of attacks, or these kinds of effects. So they are much, much more vulnerable than a naval ship would be,” says Hans Tino Hansen, the CEO of Risk Intelligence.
Those efforts all present their own challenges in an industry with paper-thin margins, where shipowners are already struggling to adapt to the costs associated with the 2020 IMO regulations on the shift to cleaner bunker fuels.
Governments have the ability to provide a further safety net, by creating land-based navigation networks, known as eLoran systems, which have stronger signals and as such are more difficult to disrupt. Whether they will step up is another question.
Both China and Russia still maintain such regional systems, and the US government has repeatedly pledged to create a reinforced transmission system, too. One could eventually arrive: a bill to create such a system is currently making its way through the US legislative system.
But even if it passes, progress could be slow – the system will not get funding until the 2020 budget, at the earliest.
“The technology is solved. The policy is solved. It’s just a matter of nations implementing the policies and the technology,” says Goward. “It is really just a willingness and a leadership problem.”