Posted by on January 6, 2020 11:03 am
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Of GPS and Ghost Ships: A Cautionary Tale from the Internet of Things


By Daniel McGroarty, TES GeoPolicy Editor


Call it a sign of our 21st Century times:  Have you noticed how often the “News of the Weird” intersects the mundane world we live in, or strive mightily to?


A new “Weird” comes to us from the MIT Technology Review, in a fascinating piece titled “Ghost ships, crop circles, and soft gold: A GPS mystery in Shanghai.” 


Seems that at the world’s busiest container port, there’s a disturbing rise of odd GPS glitches that make ships disappear, reappear, and sometimes even shimmer in what almost look like crop circles.  Not exactly the kind of maneuverability we expect to see from commercial sea vessels.  And decidedly not good, given the congestion along the waterways of Shanghai, and the risks to maritime safety.


As MIT’s Mark Harris writes:


“…New research and previously unseen data show that… thousands of… vessels in Shanghai over the last year are falling victim to a mysterious new weapon that is able to spoof GPS systems in a way never seen before.


Nobody knows who is behind this spoofing, or what its ultimate purpose might be. These ships could be unwilling test subjects for a sophisticated electronic warfare system, or collateral damage in a conflict between environmental criminals and the Chinese state that has already claimed dozens of ships and lives. But one thing is for certain: there is an invisible electronic war over the future of navigation in Shanghai, and GPS is losing.”


Could it be Shanghai’s “sand pirates” – a group of swashbuckers who figured out how to siphon off millions of tons of sand from the Yangtzee River bed, just the perfect consistency, as it happens, for construction cement?  The sand pirates could definitely use a navigation spoofer to slide past Chinese authorities with their contraband sand, the “soft gold” referenced in the MIT piece’s title.


Trouble is, it’s only a matter of time until a cargo ship large enough to hold the volume of the entire Empire State Building collides with one of these GPS ghost vessels, with catastrophic consequences.


But really… sand pirates?  At $85,000 a shipload, the sand pirates could have a pretty robust IT Department, but it strikes me that for such strange phenomenon to go on for so long – and to do so in a major mega-city – Chinese authorities could well be involved.


And you don’t have to consult Lao Tzu to wonder whether a GPS spoofing system wouldn’t be just the thing for 21stCentury warfare.


In any case, MIT’s Harris leaves the question open – though he gives the last work to an expert on GPS hacking, who opines:


“I don’t think it’s some rogue actor….  It may be connected with some experimental capability that [the Chinese authorities] are trying to test. But I’m genuinely puzzled how this is being done.”


This we know:  There will be far more potential for mayhem coming from cyberspace – some of it hitting disturbingly close to home.


Take the IoT, the Internet of Things so many enthuse about:  the inter-webbing of all manner of devices we use routinely, to speak to each other – anything from instructing our fridge to monitor the sell-by date and reorder the oatmilk for our morning latte, or placing a Grubhub order, STAT, for another vat of queso and extra nachos based on the fact that the big game just went into overtime…


All while eavesdropping on our every word and act.


According to ZDNet, The IoT is “Big and getting bigger — there are already more connected things than people in the world. Analyst Gartner calculates that around 8.4 billion IoT devices were in use in 2017, up 31 percent from 2016, and this will likely reach 20.4 billion by 2020.”


…Making things easier — but for what?  As the techies at UL Labs note:


“Each connected device can be a doorway for bad actors.  In 2011, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was breached by a group of Chinese hackers. Even after the breach was discovered and the Chamber fortified its computer systems, it continued to see suspicious activity: a thermostat at one of the offices was found to be communicating with an IP address in China, and a printer used by executives spontaneously started printing pages with Chinese characters.”


An eavesdropping thermostat sounds so…. 2011.  After all, since then, millions of us have invited Alexa into our homes and Siri onto our phones to listen silently to our slightest whim – and evidently to much else going on in our households as well.  As we head into the 2020s, we expect our thermostats to chat with us – click here to buy a talking thermostat at Amazon — or at least to obey Alexa.  At this point, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn my thermostat has its own Instagram account, let alone that it speaks Mandarin or plays Words With Friends with King Jong Un’s smart toaster.


The point is, we’ve turned loose thousands of apps – and turned over vast swathes of our lives – to these devices not at the point of a gun, but voluntarily, because of sloth: because they make everything easier.


Easier, that is, until they take over our steering wheel and swing a hard left from the right lane, or take us from zero to 120 mph when our foot’s stomping the brake.  Or make 200,000-ton cargo ships disappear or dance in phantom crop circles.  Or open dam sluices across the American West, spike nuclear plant core reactors, switch railroad tracks during peak traffic, set every light at every 4-way intersection in every city on Green.  And make us pine for the old days of natural disasters that, thankfully, tended not to happen everywhere and all at once.


Something tells me it won’t take the Singularity to make this grave new world happen, when our machines finally tire of us dim-bulb humans and decide to thin the herd.  It will only take a tech-savvy sand pirate, or sad-sack basement-dwelling adolescent hacker.


Or a major nation-state with a 100,000-woman and -man hacker army


…And the world as we know it will be laid waste.


And like the mystery of the GPS ghost ships, we won’t even know with certainty who’s making it happen, or why.


Hey Siri, what was it that Sun Tzu said about the skill of the wisest general?


“…To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”


Now, what’s taking GrubHub with those nachos?


Daniel McGroarty, TES GeoPolicy editor, served in senior positions in the White House and Department of Defense, and has testified in the U.S. Senate and House on critical minerals issues.  McGroarty is principal of Washington, D.C.-based Carmot Strategic Group, and president of the American Resources Policy Network, a non-partisan virtual think tank dedicated to informing the public on the importance of developing U.S. metal and mineral resources.  The views expressed here are his own.