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Israel fakes GPS locations to deter attacks, but it also throws off planes and ships

The U.S.-operated GPS has falsely located planes, people and ships, sometimes placing them at the <strong> </strong>Beirut's international airport.
Hassan Ammar
The U.S.-operated GPS has falsely located planes, people and ships, sometimes placing them at the Beirut's international airport.

BEIRUT — For the past few months, the U.S.-operated Global Positioning System has been listing planes, people and even ships hundreds of miles from Lebanon in a surprising place — Beirut's international airport.

It's the result of a practice called GPS "spoofing" — which sends false location signals to satellites that overwhelm the real signals.

The operations, which researchers have traced to Israel, are intended to deter rockets and missiles but are at the same time increasing risks for airline passengers while forcing pilots and ship captains to abandon automated safety systems developed over decades.

"I like to say that spoofing is the new jamming," says Todd Humphreys, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Austin who is an expert on GPS spoofing. "Instead of just jamming the signals and breaking the links with GPS satellites, they're spoon-feeding them false signals."

"This is unprecedented. It's not just the usual suspects," he says, noting that Russia interferes with GPS systems in the war in Ukraine. "But now it's Israel it's an ally of the United States."

GPS, a network of satellites and control stations that underpins global navigation and has become an everyday life tool, is owned by the United States andoperated by the U.S. Air Force.

Israel acknowledged after the start of the war in Gaza last October that it was blocking GPS for defensive purposes but has not publicly commented on more advanced interference.

The data points to an Israeli base

Humphreys says he and his students have traced the origin of the false signals using data collected from receivers in low Earth orbit.

"That data points to a particular air base run by the [Israeli military] in Israel when we process it," says Humphreys.

Spoofing has been conducted for the last several years by countries that include Russia, China and Iran. But this is an even higher level of interference and widespread effects on aviation, navigation and anything that uses GPS, according to researchers.

Mohammed Aziz, a consultant to Lebanon's Middle East Airlines and a retired airline captain, says unlike jamming, pilots can easily mistake spoofed signals for real ones.

"You don't have a warning on the aircraft that the signal is spoofed," he says in Beirut.

Aziz, who has worked with aviation safety regulators, says the loss of reliably accurate GPS signals has prompted pilots to return to practices half a century old, such as reporting location points on the ground.

Aviation officials say GPS spoofing has affected the ability to land aircraft, forcing pilots to rely on traffic control instructions and visual aids. It has also disrupted the ground proximity warning system that instructs pilots to pull up if it registers that they are about to hit the ground or fly into a mountain.

"The most recent guidance from the main carriers ... is that you have to be shutting off GPS inputs to your system long before you're in conflict areas," says Humphreys.

Pilots risk turning off satellite-based systems

Humphreys says pilots have reported dozens of incidents of losing their way and have begun to turn off satellite-based systems.

"We're turning off these systems because they are at present more of a liability than a help. But I think that puts us in a dangerous situation," Humphreys says.

"I would be hesitant to get on an aircraft that was flying in the Eastern Mediterranean or overflying certain parts of Turkey or near Iran," he says. "I think the risk level has gone up by several factors by now."

In January, the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority issued a safety alert warning of safety risks due to increased GPS spoofing.

Humphreys says particularly alarming is the watering down in December of a long-standing international ban on GPS interference. Members of the United Nations'International Telecommunications Union(ITU), which regulates communication technology, passed a motion in December in Dubai that for the first time allows spoofing of GPS for national security reasons.

"It's a dangerous situation for air traffic control, dangerous for pilots," Humphreys says. "But it is no longer illegal because the ITU has accepted this recommendation with a carve-out for national security."

The ITU did not respond to a request for comment.

Shipping can be thrown off, too

Although the risks of false GPS locations are much higher in the air, they are also affecting shipping — where navigation is normally controlled by the satellite-based Automatic Identification System (AIS).

"We are seeing a spike in vessels having their AIS essentially manipulated by third party operations, seeing a massive uptick in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea as well as the Black Sea," saysBridget Diakun, a data analyst with the shipping journal Lloyd's List.

"It distorts the information being received by the GPS systems," she says. "So they're showing up in all kinds of crazy places, mainly airports."

Humphreys explains that "most of the spoofing around Israel is directing aircraft to believe that they are at the Beirut airport." He says a possible reason is that commercially available drones, which can be modified for attack, are built to freeze in the vicinity of an airport.

"It's not that Israel is directing the drones to attack the Beirut airport," he says. "Instead, the hope is they would just get confused."

Delivery drivers and dating apps are also confused

The false signals are affecting ride share apps, delivery drivers and dating app users — matching them with potential partners hundreds of miles away, including in countries at war.

At a café in Beirut in April, Rayane, 28, flicked through the deck of possible matches sent by the dating app Bumble. The majority of matches used to be in Beirut. But since the region was flooded with false locations, most of them now are hundreds of miles away — in Israel.

The two countries are officially at war.

Rayane does not want her last name used because she says doesn't want to make public that she uses dating apps, "people can be judgmental."

She pulls up a profile of one potential match — a 34-year-old software engineer. His photos show him in a variety of outdoor poses — and then one in an Israeli military uniform, holding a rifle and leaning against a vehicle.

"I would never have known if it weren't for this picture of him in uniform," she says.

Jawad Rizkallah contributed reporting in Beirut.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.