Don’t panic, yet
Students from the University of Texas successfully piloted an $80m superyacht sailing 30 miles offshore in the Mediterranean Sea by overriding the ship’s GPS signals without any alarms being raised.
The team, led by assistant professor Todd Humphreys from UT Austin’s department of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics, took a GPS spoofing device the size of a briefcase up to the upper deck of the White Rose of Drachs, a 65 meter luxury yacht owned by British property magnate Michael Evans, while it was in international waters en route from Monaco to Rhodes, Greece.
Having previously identified the location of the ship’s two GPS receivers, the team then oriented the briefcase towards them and began broadcasting false GPS data at low power. By gradually increasing the strength of their signals they were able to overpower the aerials and spoof the on-board navigation systems.
To turn the ship they then input a new signal indicating the ship was going off its logged-in course, which set off an alarm from the navigation computer telling the crew to change course. As far as the crew was concerned things were back on track, but the vessel was now heading off its original course.
“With 90 percent of the world’s freight moving across the seas and a great deal of the world’s human transportation going across the skies, we have to gain a better understanding of the broader implications of GPS spoofing,” Humphreys said.
“I didn’t know, until we performed this experiment, just how possible it is to spoof a marine vessel and how difficult it is to detect this attack. This experiment is applicable to other semi-autonomous vehicles, such as aircraft, which are now operated, in part, by autopilot systems.”
The experiment, which took place with the ship-owner’s permission, is part of continuing research by the team into GPS spoofing. Last year Humphreys demonstrated how the same spoofing technique could be used from 1km away against a GPS-guided drone to an audience from the US Department of Homeland Security at White Sands, New Mexico.
The demonstration got a lot of attention, coming after the Iranians showed off a seemingly intact US bat-wing RQ-170 Sentinel drone, which it claimed it had been hacked and hijacked by an army electronic warfare unit. These claims have been dismissed by experts, but fears of military hardware getting redirected or stolen are on the agenda, as well as being much-loved by screenwriters.
Before the panic starts, it should be pointed out that the Texans are spoofing civilian GPS systems. Cracking encrypted military signals has never been demonstrated, although jamming them is possible, and redirecting cruise missiles in flight will remain in the fictional realm for the time being.
In the case of the White Rose of Drachs hijacking, there’s also little need for concern. The ship carries a crew of 18 and no captain relies solely on GPS. Any significant course deviation would most likely be noticed by those on watch during regular position checks.
Nevertheless, the research by Humphreys and the US Austin team is interesting. Spoofing equipment is increasingly easy to get hold of and while Humphries claims to “owns the world’s most powerful civil GPS spoofer,” that should come with a caveat “that I know about.” ®