GPS, or Global Positioning System, and other similar devices that rely on sending and receiving satellite signals are susceptible to interference or hacking. Since GPS signals from satellites are relatively weak, they are prone to interference whether accidental or deliberate. GPS can also be jammed or spoofed as portable equipment can easily drown them out or broadcast fake signals that can make GPS receive give incorrect position data. While vessels more commonly use Automatic Identification System (AIS), that system was never intended for Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) use and relies on the same navigational inputs as GPS, which can be spoofed as well. Recent news coverage of a GPS spoofing attack involving over 20 vessels in the Black Sea back in June appears to be the first well document account of a mass spoofing incident. Their GPS systems suddenly gave them false readings. In 2013, a group of college students proved they could fool the GPS navigation system of an $80 million super yacht. Unlike aircraft, ships lack a back-up navigation system and if their GPS ceases to function, they risk running aground or colliding with other vessels.
The risk of cyberattacks targeting ships’ satellite navigation is pushing some nations to delve back through history and develop back-up systems with roots in World War II terrestrial radio technology. The system taking the early lead for that role is eLoran, short for Enhanced LOng RAnge Navigation. South Korea is planning to bring back radio navigation with eLoran as a back-up for GPS, and the United States is planning to do the same when Congress passed legislation last year to implement the system. Britain and Russia have also explored adopting versions of the technology, which works on radio signals.
The Loran system enables ships and aircraft to determine their speed and location using low-frequency signals broadcast from ground stations. The original, and now obsolete, Loran-C system was decommissioned by the U.S. Coast Guard in 2010. At one time, the more sophisticated eLoran system was expected to replace it with signals that, unlike GPS, could reach underground, under water, and into buildings. The eLoran system operates in much the same way as GPS or other Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) satellite systems but as a complementary and independent system. It operates at significantly higher power levels than satellite-based systems and is much more difficult to jam or spoof. The signal is approximately 1.3 million times more powerful than the GPS signal, according to Dana Goward, president and executive director of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation (RNT) Foundation. It enables GNSS users to retain the safety, security and economic benefits of GNSS, even when their satellite services are disrupted. U.S. engineer Brad Parkinson, known as the “father of GPS” and its chief developer, is among those who have supported the deployment of eLoran as a back-up to GPS, saying “[it] is only two-dimensional, regional, and not as accurate, but it offers a powerful signal at an entirely different frequency. It is a deterrent to deliberate jamming or spoofing (giving wrong positions), since such hostile activities can be rendered ineffective.”
GPS spoofing is another issue that maritime companies must be mindful of. Is there a need for additional systems onboard to act as a back-up to GPS? Some would agree. This continues to prove just how interconnected and technology dependent the maritime industry has become, and its potential vulnerabilities.
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