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Cyber Experts Believe Hacking May Have Caused Collision of USS John S. McCain

Following the collision between the USS John S. McCain with an oil tanker on August 21, several experts in cyber security and satellite navigation systems have raised the possibility that there might have been cyber interference with the ship’s satellite navigation system. The experts’ suspicions were increased by the fact that the John S. McCain was the fourth collision involving a ship of the Seventh Fleet this year. The others occurred on January 31, when the guided missile cruiser USS Antietam ran aground off the coast of Japan; on May 9, when another cruiser, the USS Lake Champlain, was struck by a South Korean fishing vessel; and on June 17, when the destroyer USS Fitzgerald collided with a container ship, resulting in the deaths of seven sailors.

The latest collision occurred near the Strait of Malacca, a crowded 1.7-mile-wide waterway that connects the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. The strait accounts for about 25 percent of global shipping and is always crowded with vessels.

A Navy commander said on August 22 that divers had found the remains of some of the 10 sailors who have been missing since the McCain collided with the tanker. The McCain is now moored at Changi naval base in Singapore.

The McClatchyDC, news website interviewed Jeff Stutzman, chief intelligence officer at Wapack Labs, a New Boston, New Hampshire cyber intelligence service, about his take on the naval collisions. Stutzman is a former Navy information warfare specialist.

“When you are going through the Strait of Malacca, you can’t tell me that a Navy destroyer doesn’t have a full navigation team going with full lookouts on every wing and extra people on radar,” said Stutzman.

“There’s something more than just human error going on because there would have been a lot of humans to be checks and balances,” he noted.

McClatchyDC also quoted Todd E. Humphreys, a professor at the University of Texas and expert in satellite navigation systems, who also had his doubts about human error being the only thing responsible for the recent naval collisions: “Statistically, it looks very suspicious, doesn’t it?”

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Humphreys cited a June 22 incident as an example of how cyber attacks can alter GPS signals. On that day, someone manipulated GPS signals in the eastern part of the Black Sea, leaving some 20 ships with little situational awareness. Shipboard navigation equipment, which appeared to be working properly, reported the location of the vessels 20 miles inland, near an airport.

“We saw it done in, I would say, a really unsubtle way, a really ham-fisted way. It was probably a signal that came from the Russian mainland,” Humphreys said.


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