Spoofing on the High Seas: Yacht GPS hacked without alarm

August 6, 2013
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A team of researchers at the University of Texas at Austin recently conducted an experiment on counterfeit GPS signals. During this experiment researchers used a custom built GPS spoofing device to send fake signals to a yacht, which in turn sent this giant 213-foot boat off course. And the worst part about this is that these counterfeit signals did not trigger any alarms!

When out at sea, a crew’s sense of the ship’s location is based completely off of GPS signals, and these signals are broadcasted from orbiting satellites. So during this experiment, a researcher was able to command a spoofing device to transmit faint fraudulent signals to the ship’s antennas. The researcher then increased the strength of the signals until they were stronger than the other satellite signals, thus gaining control of the ship’s navigation system. Because the takeover was stealthy and done slowly, no alarms were triggered. Once in control of the navigation, the researcher entered a 3-degree course change, which then caused the ship’s navigation system to report a slight drift. In reaction to the reported drift, the crew manually applied a course correction. Instead of correcting the course, the crew was actually steering off course, and onto the researcher’s intended fake route.

There are two main worries now, first is the fact that the GPS alarms were not triggered, and second is that this vulnerability might not be limited to just yachts. Users of any semi-autonomous vehicles, like airplanes, have come to trust their autopilot systems, and these systems could be at risk of being hacked from afar. There are some ways to prevent such attacks, like encrypting GPS signals. The US military encrypts their GPS codes differently than civilian GPS codes, resulting in less hackable GPS systems. Other options are to adjust algorithms that identify spoofing attempts or to strengthen GPS signals so that other signals won’t be able to overpower them.

Having a better understanding of how these GPS systems work is an easy way for everyday users to prevent these potential hacks. Solutions are in the mix, so the time for panic is NOT now. Though if you were planning on throwing out that old worn out paper map that you keep in the glove compartment, maybe now isn’t the opportune moment. Keep it around just incase, you never know when you will be without GPS connection.

To read more about the GPS Spoof, click here.

And see the video here: