Yacht Hijacked By University Of Texas Via GPS Spoofing
August 1, 2013

GPS Spoofing Device ‘Hijacks’ Mediterranean Yacht

[ Watch the Video: Spoofing On The High Seas ]

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Students at the University of Texas, Austin, have demonstrated the ability to spoof a GPS system using a custom-made device that diverted an $80 million yacht from its course in the Mediterranean Sea.

The researchers, led by UT engineering professor Todd Humphreys, were able to use the briefcase-sized device to override existing GPS signals and effectively take control - with permission of the owners - of the navigation of the 213-foot yacht.

The experiment is a powerful demonstration of the world's first openly acknowledged GPS spoofing device, and highlights a potential threat to marine vessels and other forms of transportation.

Spoofing is a technique that creates false civil GPS signals to gain control of a vessel's GPS receivers. The purpose of the current study was to measure the difficulty of conducting a spoofing attack at sea, and to determine how easily sensors in the yacht's command room could identify the threat.

"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."

Last year, Humphreys and a group of students created a GPS device that achieved the first public capture of a GPS-guided unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone.

In June, the team was invited aboard a yacht dubbed the White Rose of Drachs as 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.

From the yacht's upper deck, graduate students Jahshan Bhatti and Ken Pesyna broadcasted a faint collection of civil GPS signals from their spoofing device toward the ship's two GPS antennas. These counterfeit signals slowly overpowered the authentic GPS signals, until the researchers ultimately obtained control of the ship's navigation system.

Furthermore, GPS spoofing, unlike signal blocking or jamming, triggers no alarms on the ship's navigation equipment because the false signals are indistinguishable from the authentic ones. This means spoofing attacks can happen covertly.

Once the researchers successfully gained control of the ship's navigation system, their strategy was to coerce the yacht onto a new course using subtle maneuvers that positioned the ship a few degrees off its original course.

Once a location discrepancy was reported by the ship's navigation system, the crew initiated a course correction. However, in reality, each course correction was setting the ship slightly off its intended course line.

Inside the yacht's command room, an electronic chart showed the ship's progress along a fixed line, but the wake revealed a pronounced curve indicating the ship had turned.

"The ship actually turned and we could all feel it, but the chart display and the crew saw only a straight line," Humphreys said.

After several of these maneuvers, the yacht had been tricked onto a parallel track hundreds of meters from its intended course, and the researchers had successfully spoofed the ship.

Humphreys said the experiment demonstrates the divergence between the capabilities of spoofing devices and what the transportation industry's technology can detect.

Chandra Bhat, director of the Center for Transportation Research at The University of Texas at Austin, said the experiment highlights the susceptibility of the transportation sector to spoofing attacks.

"The surprising ease with which Todd and his team were able to control a (multimillion) dollar yacht is evidence that we must invest much more in securing our transportation systems against potential spoofing," she said.

Humphreys said it is important for the public and policymakers to understand spoofing poses a real threat to the transportation industry.

"This experiment is applicable to other semi-autonomous vehicles, such as aircraft, which are now operated, in part, by autopilot systems," he said.

"We've got to put on our thinking caps and see what we can do to solve this threat quickly."