Score one for tech geeks and college kids everywhere.
A small group of researchers from the University of Texas at Austin recently “tricked” a 213-foot superyacht on the Mediterranean Sea to stray from its course by using a custom-made GPS spoofing device, reports the University of Texas on July 29.
The $80 million yacht, with all of its high-tech navigational and satellite-run equipment, was rendered ineffectual by a device that is the size of a laptop.
The surprising result, which took the ship hundreds of yards off its initial course and onto a parallel course, was accomplished with relative ease.
“People have come to trust their electronic chart displays,” Todd Humphreys, team leader and assistant professor at the University of Texas Cockrell School of Engineering said. “The signals have a detailed structure, but they don’t have defenses against counterfeiting.”
Humphries and his team were aboard the yacht, named White Rose of Drachs, and had permission to test the equipment. The result proved effective in what the University is calling the “world’s first openly acknowledged GPS spoofing device.”
“It’s pretty breath-taking really,” Humphreys says. “You wouldn’t need to be on board the vessel, you could be miles away on another ship. If you were airborne, you could be 20 to 30 miles away. All that matters is that by the time your signal arrives at the vessel, it’s stronger than the real signal.”
The test showed that fairly simply, a course reset could be done to even large vessels at sea. The false signals being submitted were indistinguishable from authentic signals, making the takeover quite covert.
“To build the box took a team of three to four PhDs… but it wouldn’t take a PhD to operate it,” Humphries commented.
“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.”
Humphreys said it’s important for the public and policymakers to understand the real threats of spoofing and the implications it could have to transportation concerns worldwide.
“The ship actually turned and we could all feel it, but the chart display and the crew saw only a straight line,” Humphreys said.