Russian-linked electronic warfare equipment which creates false GPS signals has been used thousands of times – including outside of the country’s own territories. Using data collected by the International Space Station (ISS), researchers found GPS spoofing technology being used in Russian controlled areas of Syria.
The tech works by manipulating Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) into believing they are located elsewhere. GNSS is a catch-all term for satellite-based navigation systems, including: GPS, the Russian GLONASS, Europe’s Galileo and China’s Beidou.
A new report from C4ADS, a non-profit organisation focussing on conflict and security, found 9,883 cases of GNSS spoofing. Because of the widespread use of GPS-style technologies – in navigation, mobile phone networks, and stock markets – false signals have the potential to cause widespread disruption.
C4ADS says spoofing has affected 1,311 commercial ships in and around Russian waters since February 2016. “C4ADS detected at least 7,910 instances where victim vessels located outside of Russian territorial waters fell victim to GNSS spoofing activity, potentially posing a risk to maritime navigational safety,” the group says in its report.
C4ADS’s report focussed on GPS spoofing in Russia but also says it has seen the technology used in Crimea and Syria. “GPS spoofing or GNSS spoofing at large takes place in close proximity to sensitive government facilities within Moscow, as well as on the Black Sea coast near official recognised government residences,” explains a researcher for C4ADS, who did not wish to be named.
The group’s report is based on publicly available data from the AIS shipping system, satellite images, information from the ISS and previous reporting of GPS problems. Spoofing has been found in ten locations in Russia: Gelendzhik, Sochi, Vladivostock, Saint Petersburg, Olyva, Arkhangelsk, Kerch, Moscow, Sevastopol, Khmeimim.
By monitoring the publicly disclosed location of Putin the researchers were able to say that GPS signals were seemingly spoofed to obfuscate his movements. “In almost all cases where brief GNSS spoofing events occurred in remote locations in Russia and Crimea, such as in Arkhangelsk, Vladivostok, and Kerch, we found that spoofing events directly coincided with visits by Russian president Vladimir Putin,” the report says.
On both May 15 and September 15 last year, Putin visited the area around the Kerch Bridge (also known as the Crimean Bridge). The construction of the bridge, between Ukraine and Russia, has been condemned by Nato, while Russian naval operations have also taken place in the area. C4ADS says it found GPS spoofing on both occasions that Putin visited the area.
“We were able to uncover evidence that systems used to spoof GNSS signals are also being deployed on the ground in Syria,” the report says. Working with researchers from the University of Texas, the group analysed data from the ISS to locate a GPS spoofing transmitter at the Khmeimim Airbase, located south-east of the city of Latakia. On three separate days last summer, C4ADS found “clear evidence” of the GPS signals being deliberately disrupted.
There are various ways that GPS can be meddled with. GPS spoofing, the most commonly highlighted by the C4ADS report, involves manipulating data to trick systems into believing they are in the wrong position. GPS jamming stops systems from working entirely.
Unlike other spoofing attacks investigated by C4ADS, the incidents in Syria replace legitimate GPS data with a signal that doesn’t even contain a location. “Khmeimim Airbase, where the spoofed GPS signals appear to originate, serves as one of the primary staging locations for Russian military sorties in Syria,” the report explains.
C4ADS says Russia-linked GPS interference is mainly being used as a defence mechanism – to protect sensitive locations and people from drone attacks. Meddling with GPS around a specific area could stop a drone flying on a specific course from reaching its target. In recent years, consumer drones have started to be used in attacks by groups such as Isis and in an attack on Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro.
This isn’t the first time that Russia has been linked to GPS interference. In September 2017, WIRED reported on one of the first known instances of GPS Russian spoofing. In November 2018, the governments of Finland and Norway accused Russia of jamming GPS signals on a nearby military base during Nato testing operations. (Russian spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said at the time “as a rule, these allegations are found to have no basis in actual fact”.)
A 2017 report from the International Centre for Defence and Security, authored by former NSA director Michael Hayden, said Russia has “heavily invested” in electronic warfare capabilities such as GPS spoofing. “Russia’s Armed Forces’ electronic warfare capability development will pose a serious challenge to the proper planning and execution of Nato’s defence of the Baltic states, and Nato’s entire eastern flank, in the event of a Russian assault,” the report concluded.
C4ADS doesn’t directly blame Russia for the GPS spoofing activity – and attributing attacks of this nature is incredibly complex. “The report doesn’t try to make any conclusive statements about who or what might be conducting this activity but we do identify potential actors that might be involved, or were present during the events described,” says a researcher who worked on the project, who asked not to be named.
All of the incidents highlighted in the report have happened around Russia and have links to its interests. Within Russia there have previously been reports of taxi drivers and Pokémon Go players getting caught up by apparent GPS spoofing attacks.
It also highlighted a potential counter-drone system around the Kremlin. C4ADS says antennas on all of the buildings, two of which are known to be publicly owned by the Russian government, point towards the Kremlin and are identical. It says “individuals with electronic warfare experience” highlight antennas that could operate on ultra-high frequency bands. The group suggests that the antennas are in place for countering drones. They “could be used to direct GNSS spoofing signals in a desired direction”.
And the low cost of the technology means it isn’t necesserially just nation states who are using GPS spoofing. “The technology used to conduct this activity over the past decade, has become cheaper and easier to procure,” the researcher says, adding it was possible to buy the technology for as little as $300.
“These technologies are not just available to state actors,” the researcher adds. “I think more and more we’re seeing that these capabilities are being used to project strategic interests and promote power abroad”.
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