Mysterious GPS outages impact maritime industry


Intentional interference with global positioning system signal signals is on the rise worldwide—often in conjunction with crime or armed conflict—creating challenges for maritime shipping, Fortune reports.

The sources of such disruptions are hard to trace, the magazine notes. But the expanding interference has exposed vulnerabilities for GPS and for the oceangoing shippers who depend on it—an industry that handles more than 80% of global trade, according to the International Maritime Organization, the United Nations regulatory agency.

It’s surprisingly easy, Fortune reports, to knock the system into disarray. The shipping industry, meanwhile, appears underprepared to cope with breakdowns and unwilling to invest in self-defense.

In a June 2019 paper prepared for the Department of Commerce, the research nonprofit RTI International estimated the cost of a 30-day GPS outage in the U.S. at $1 billion per day. The marine industry would be among those hit hardest, because of the bottlenecks an outage would cause in ports and waterways. And U.S. losses would represent only a fraction of the worldwide impact.

All satellite navigation systems are vulnerable. Their signals, which grow weaker as they travel from orbit to earth, are often interrupted accidentally, by atmospheric disturbances or faulty equipment. They can also be interrupted on purpose, by transmitters beaming a conflicting signal, a technique known as “jamming.” Typically, the stronger the conflicting signals, the farther that disruption will reach.

More sophisticated, and more malicious, is “spoofing,” which creates  fake signals that convince the receiver it is somewhere it is not, Fortune reports. Done correctly, spoofing can go undetected—and is capable of leading an oil tanker, for example, off course in open water.

Fortune tells the story of a tanker approaching the end of its monthlong journey from the Port of South Louisiana, carrying more than 5,000 metric tons of ethanol to the Vasiliko oil termina on the southern coast of Cypress.

The master of the tanker made a radio call to the pilots’ office with an urgent message: The ship’s GPS signal had suddenly disappeared, leaving the crew to navigate Cyprus’s shoreline—where NATO and Russian warships roam nearby—in the dark.

Fortune has the full story.