The mystery of the mysterious palace: Is Russia hacking the GPS signal to protect Putin?

The Kremlin quickly denied allegations that the megalomaniac residence should belong to Putin, and oligarch Arkady Rotenberg, with close ties to Putin, said he owned the complex and intended to run a hotel there.

We will probably never know what the palace really is like. What is certain, however, is that signals from the Global Positioning System (GNSS) in the environment appear to be remarkably frequently distorted or distorted. Many observers claim that there is a so-called spoofing, which aims to divert attention so that curious people cannot see Putin’s alleged palace.

What exactly is spoofing? In this context, it is an attack in which false signals mimic real ones and the receiver misinterprets them as authentic. Spoofing can affect any GNSS, including the US Global Positioning System (GPS), the Russian GLONASS, or the European Galileo, which, according to Christoph Günther of the German Aviation Center, usually “Transmits signals for public use, for example in mobile phones”.

Such signals can be used to test telephones, but spoofing devices can be used to transmit spurious signals, simply being stronger than signals from satellites in space. Thus, the user of the spoofing device can define the position displayed by the receiver. According to the server Strategy Page spoofing is mainly used by the governments of Russia, China and North Korea.

Think-Tank C4ADS pointed out spoofing in the Black Sea as early as 2019:

Such techniques are usually strictly forbidden, unless an emergency occurs. “State security forces can use them to avert a specific danger,” explained for German wave Günther, who, however, pointed out that the necessary equipment can be bought for only a few hundred dollars (roughly ten thousand crowns).

According to Deutsche Welle, in some parts of the world, spoofing seems more common than in others, and this is the Black Sea region. One case from 2017 is really worrying: the Atria tanker flying the French flag was on its way to the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk when a GPS warned it that it was at Gelendzhik Airport, about 26 kilometers southeast of its current location. The captain contacted other vessels in the area and it turned out that they had the same problem. The US Naval Administration (MARAD) subsequently issued a warning to all ships in the area.

Crimea and Syria

In the spring of 2019, the Washington think-tank published the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) report on spoofing activities in Russia, Crimea and Syria. After evaluating public sources, data from automatic ship identification systems (AIS) and GPS receivers installed on the International Space Station (ISS), the think-tank concluded that Russia was a pioneer in spoofing techniques, which were previously used primarily to protect VIPs and strategic buildings. According to the server Maritime Executive Criminals also use GPS interference to deactivate tracking devices when hijacking trucks, stealing cargo and transporting stolen cars in containers.

It is unclear whether the tanker incident was directly related to Putin’s palace, C4ADS speculated that the reason was more for the president’s visit to Anapa on the Black Sea to inspect the TurkStream pipeline project.

Between 2016 and 2018, according to C4ADS, more than 4,600 cases of spoofing were recorded in this area; the think-tank report offers an explanation: “Gelendzhik is often visited by security officials, which is in line with popular but unconfirmed reports that President Putin has a private headquarters near the city.”

“After examining several hypotheses, we believe that the spoofing used near Gelendzhik is terrestrial.” adds a report. “Given the frequent nature of spoofing and its far-reaching effects on vessels in the area, we assume that the facility has access to a reliable and sustainable source of electricity.”

“The results showed that only one facility located at Cape Idokopas (the site of the alleged Putin Palace) had direct visibility with more than 98 percent of the affected receivers on board,” pointed out C4ADS.

The report failed to determine whether spoofing in the area was directly related to the palace, although Sochi, where the president has his official summer residence, is only a short distance away. However, according to the report “Gelendzhik is located a short distance from the Novorossiysk port, which is one of the largest deep-sea ports in Russia and is home to a large contingent of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.”

According to C4ADS findings, vessels were often spoofed to nearby airports in Gelendzhik and Sochi. According to Günther, this could have something to do with regulations for drones, which pose a danger to air traffic and are not allowed to fly near airports. As soon as they find themselves near an airport, they have to land automatically.

“This is obviously being used by individual security forces using spoofing devices to send signals that correspond to the location of the airport,” he explained. “Even if the drone doesn’t land, it still shows the same position. It can therefore no longer be managed. “ In other words, according to Deutsche Welle, Russia uses spoofing to deter snooping with drones, and the confusion caused to ship captains and other users of navigation systems is actually just a side effect.

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The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is aware of MARAD’s warnings. In March 2020, the US Coast Guard presented a document to the IMO Maritime Safety Committee, which “addresses the urgent issue of intentional interference with GNSS signals.”

“Interference with these signals threatens the efficiency and safety of life at sea,” states the document. Although it mentions the events in the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean between 2016 and 2018, it does not mention Russia.

However, the document points out that such interference was contrary to the “Regulation on Radiocommunications within the International Telecommunication Union”, which prohibits “Any false or misleading transmissions”, and reminded all Member States to “refrain from interfering with GPS and GNSS signals unless necessary for safety reasons”. The IMO has a discussion on the document in May this year, he concludes German wave.

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