MI6 fears Iran used Russian GPS tech to send UK tanker off course - report

In June, senior Israeli officials said that they believe that Russia had been disrupting civilian aircraft navigation systems.

July 23, 2019 20:12
4 minute read.
 Iran's President Hassan Rouhani together with Russia's Vladimir Putin attend a joint conference

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani together with Russia's Vladimir Putin attend a joint news conference following their meeting in Sochi, Russia November 22, 2017 . (photo credit: SPUTNIK/MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/KREMLIN VIA REUTERS)

Britain’s intelligence services MI6 and GCHQ are checking whether Iran used Russian GPS “spoofing” technology, which produces incorrect location data, to send the British-flagged Stena Impero off course into Iranian waters.

According to British media, the UK’s intelligence services think Iran might have used cyber penetration to send the ship off course into Iranian waters, thus giving the IRGC an excuse to seize it.

If the Islamic republic did use the GPS spoofing technology, it would be the first time that it has publicly demonstrated that level of advanced capabilities. But US and Israeli cyber officials have been warning about Tehran’s ever-advancing abilities for years.

If in fact Iran carried out such a cyber attack, the question must be asked whether it did so independently or with Russia’s help.

“Russia has the technology to spoof GPS and may have helped Iran in this venture as it was extremely brazen,” said an anonymous security source in a report published by the Daily Mail. “It would make British shipping extremely vulnerable and will be of grave concern to Royal Navy warships in the region.”

In June, the Israeli Airports Authority announced that commercial airline pilots were having difficulty landing, and were experiencing mysterious disruptions.

Senior Israeli officials said that they believe that Russia had been disrupting civilian aircraft navigation systems, according to reports. Army Radio called the move a “hostile attack.”

According to the Israeli Airline Pilots Association, the GPS issues were part of a “spoofing” attack, causing receivers on planes to sometimes report their location as kilometers away from their actual location, reported CNN.

A report by the US Center for Advanced Defense Studies in April documented over 10,000 separate incidents of GPS disruption connected to Russia, adding that the country was “pioneering” the technique to “protect and promote its strategic interests.”
Russia has denied the report.

To resolve the issue, Israel sent a defense official to Russia to discuss the disruption, Army Radio reported.

Russia’s first infamous cyber attack was on Georgia in 2008 when it disabled whole swaths of Georgia’s government and state functions operating with electronics.

Since then, Russia has been accused of cyber attacks on countries throughout Europe, and of using cyber abilities to meddle in the 2016 US presidential elections. Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) director Nadav Argaman alluded in February to Russia attempting to interfere in Israeli elections.

Iran started doubling its efforts in the cyber domain after it realized in 2010 that, according to foreign reports, the US and Israel had used cyber attacks to sabotage its nuclear program, setting it back two years.

In June, top US homeland security cyber official Christopher Krebs told The Jerusalem Post that all Americans were now potential cyber targets of Iran in one form or another, and that Tehran had significantly increased cyber attacks on the US.

Krebs said that Iran’s latest attacks were “particularly vicious” because they are sometimes not mere attacks to deface websites or collect information, but also sometimes to completely wipe out a target’s hard drive.

Some questions cannot be fully determined without access to the ship itself, but government cyber officials in the US and Israel have explained to the Post that even the best Russian and Iranian hackers sometimes leave behind forensic cyber traces of their hacks. These include mistakes in English made by Russian or Iranian agents, as well as code in Russian or Iranian.

The US, Israel and Britain all reportedly have significant cyber abilities. For example, the US has hacked deep into Russia’s infrastructure with cyber booby traps to deter further adventurism and in the past hacked ISIS’s communications to send troops into ambushes. In 2015, the Post reported Israel has the ability to hack Hezbollah’s computer guided rockets.

Iran’s Fars news agency said the IRGC had taken control of the Stena Impero on Friday after the tanker collided with an Iranian fishing boat whose distress call it ignored.

The vessel, carrying no cargo, was taken to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. Its 23 crew members – 18 of them Indians – are expected to remain there while the accident is investigated, Iranian news agencies quoted the head of Ports and Maritime Organization in southern Hormozgan province, Allahmorad Afifipour, as saying.

The Strait of Hormuz, between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula, is the major outlet for exports of most Middle Eastern oil, and the seizure sent oil prices sharply higher. The United States, which tightened sanctions against Iran in May with the aim of halting its oil exports altogether, has been warning for months of an Iranian threat to shipping in the strait.

Britain has threatened a variety of responses, but has not yet come forward with a specific one, just as Boris Johnson emerged as the country’s new prime minister on Tuesday.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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