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A Mainstream Electronics Wizard Speaks

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The Dangers of Relying too Heavily on Helm Electronics, by Capt. Bill Pike (continued)

The crews taken into custody by the Iranians (above) were enroute to rendezvous with a Coast Guard cutter (like Adak, below) for refueling.

A Mainstream Electronics Wizard Speaks

The two Riverine Command Boats or RCBs that strayed into Iranian territorial waters earlier this year were likely equipped with off-the-shelf Furuno NavNet GPS plotters, suggests Eric Kunz, senior product manager for Furuno USA. “And,” he adds, “I am 99-percent sure that these units were not capable of encryption-based routing if, that is, these guys were indeed using our products for navigation. Some years ago I spent a good bit of time training folks aboard boats like this down in Louisiana and elsewhere. I don’t remember them having encryption.”

So does Kunz think the two RCBs may have been lured into Iranian waters by Iranian hackers operating from a remote location, a ploy that’s somewhat more complicated than the one used by Univeristy of Texas professor, Todd Humphreys and his grad students, who were actually onboard the White Rose of Drachs during their GPS spoof?

“It could be—it’s within the realm of possibility,” Kunz says. “Although, while blocking a GPS signal is relatively easy, spoofing a GPS is far from a trivial undertaking. It’s in fact so exceptionally complicated that I’d say you’d need the capabilities of a nation-state to pull it off.”

More specifically, Kunz maintains that spoofing the GPS-equipped RCBs, or any boat for that matter, is fraught with a raft of seriously challenging difficulties, one of the toughest being the comparative altitude of the antennas involved. A spoofing signal sent from a ground station, says Kunz, would tend to approach at a very low angle to the horizon, particularly with reference to a satellite-oriented receiver on a boat. And this lowness would tend to attenuate or even block the bogus signal. 

“To be able to spoof a GPS on a boat from several miles out,” concludes Kunz, “you’d have to be generating an unusually strong signal. But with that said, I do find it rather interesting these days that the U.S. Coast Guard is showing increased interest in eLoran, a land-based system that may be much less susceptible to blocking or spoofing. I mean, a couple of years ago the Coast Guard was so darn enthusiastic about pulling the plug on Loran. What’s changed?”

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