Texas students hijack superyacht with GPS-spoofing luggage

The University of Texas at Austin reports that a radio navigation research team from UT Austin’s Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at the Cockrell School of Engineering this past June set out to discover whether they could subtly coerce a 213-foot luxury yacht off its course, using a custom-made GPS device.

UTSpoofingteamdocksideLed by UT Austin assistant professor Todd Humphreys, the team demonstrated that they were able to successfully spoof an $80 million private yacht using the world’s first openly acknowledged GPS spoofing device. Spoofing in this context is s a technique by which a person or program successfully masquerades as another by falsifying data, such as the UT Austin researchers creating false civil GPS signals to gain control of a vessel’s GPS receivers. A UT Austin release explains that the purpose of this experiment was to measure the difficulty of carrying out a spoofing attack at sea and to determine how easily sensors in the ship’s command room could identify the threat.

In a 2010 Naked Scientists interview, Dr. Humphreys observed that the GPS signals civilians have access to are not secure signals, which means they don’t have any encryption or authentication. “So there’s no way for you or me to know for sure where they originate. They might be coming from the satellites, that’s the most likely scenario, but they could also nowadays be coming from someone who is generating counterfeit signals.”

The UT Austin researchers hope their demonstration will shed light on the perils of navigation attacks, serving as evidence that spoofing is a serious threat to marine vessels and other forms of transportation. Last year, Dr. Humphreys and a group of students led the first public capture of a GPS-guided unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, using a GPS device created by Humphreys and his students.bhattiwithspoofinggear

“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,” Dr. Humphreys says in the UT release. “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.”

In June, the team was invited aboard the yacht, called the White Rose of Drachs, while it traveled from Monaco to Rhodes, Greece, on the Mediterranean Sea. The experiment took place about 30 miles off the coast of Italy as the yacht sailed in international waters.

(Photo: UT Austin Research Team and White Rose of Drachs at dockside – Photo courtesy UT Aerospace Engineering & Engineering Mechanics)

The report explains how from the White Rose’s upper deck, graduate students Jahshan Bhatti and Ken Pesyna broadcast a faint ensemble of civil GPS signals from their spoofing device — a blue box about the size of a briefcase — toward the ship’s two GPS antennas. The team’s counterfeit signals slowly overpowered the authentic GPS signals until they ultimately obtained control of the ship’s navigation system.

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