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How Russia tampers with GPS

Illustration of an orbiting satellite about to be punctured by a pin.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Satellite navigation systems like the Global Positioning System (GPS) make so many different pieces of our global infrastructure tick that most countries treat their signals as sacrosanct, knowing that interfering with them could have devastating effects. But a new report released Tuesday is giving us the first broad view of a country — Russia — that's pervasively tampering with the service.

The big picture: Global navigation satellites — including GPS and less-used competing services like Russia's GLONASS — are coordinated networks of atomic clocks in outer space that can be used to triangulate precise locations or coordinate precise timing. Without them, everything from global shipping to financial markets would suffer.

Why it matters: It's easy to see the military, transportation and pizza delivery importance of precise location information. The timing signals are extremely important, too.

  • The stock market needs precision timing to handle transactions down to the fractional second.
  • Precise timing is a critical component in telecommunications because it allows national and international networks to synchronize.

The intrigue: Russia has been called out several times before for interfering with global positioning satellite systems. It is known to have pursued the national security and military use of interfering with GPS in a way no other country has. But before the study by the C4ADS think tank, no one had really taken a scientific look across all of Russia's activities to see how constant the disruptions are.

  • To do that, C4ADS used University of Texas equipment placed on the International Space Station to monitor more than 9,800 suspected instances since 2016 where fraudulent global navigation signals appear to have been broadcast in the Russian Federation, as well as instances where similar signals were broadcast in Russian conflict zones like Crimea and Syria.

C4ADS is not formally accusing the Russian government of being behind any of the fraudulent, "spoofed" signals. It would be impossible to make that kind of determination from the space station.

But, but, but: It is clear that many of the instances largely serve Russian national interests.

  • In Russia, C4ADS found that several spoofed signals came from areas where Russian VIPs (like President Vladimir Putin) were traveling or that contained military or domestic facilities Russia wants to protect (including a "multimillion-dollar 'palace'" reportedly built for Putin).
  • Those areas broadcast the coordinates of airports in places where there are no airports.
  • The spoofing was frequent enough that C4ADS reports the Russian internet firm Yandex had to redesign its ride sharing app. Otherwise, it billed passengers for sudden trips to the airport whenever their driver passed through a spoofed area.
  • Airports that mysteriously seemed to appear in the Black Sea were so disruptive that the United States issued a warning to international cargo firms.

Why airports? Many manufacturers of drones use GPS chips to prevent their products from flying into airport airspace. C4ADS suspects the spoofing was to prevent drone attacks or surveillance.

Meanwhile, Russia also used spoofing in combat zones, particularly Syria, to try to limit attacks against its installations.

  • Unlike in Russia, the fake signals were intended to mimic connections to satellites without providing discernible location information. Rather than thinking they were at airports, navigation chips couldn't figure out where they were.
  • This is likely because drone attacks in Syria often used equipment modified to ignore the airport blocks, making it more productive to disorient pilots rather than trick the aircraft.

All of the spoofing Russia has been involved in appears to have been focused on faking a location rather than disrupting timing. But the C4ADS report notes that disrupting locations during NATO and Russian military exercises affected timing anyway, impacting Finnish and Norwegian cell phone networks.