Texas GPS spoofing fools $80M superyacht receiver

By GABRIELLE LEVY, UPI.com  |  July 30, 2013 at 2:14 PM
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When was the last time you got in your car to go someplace new and didn't plug directions into a GPS?

A team of researchers from the University of Texas recently completed a project that might make you think twice the next time.

Assistant professor Todd Humphreys, with the consent of the captain of the $80 million super yacht "White Rose of Drachs," conducted tests on the Ionian Sea in June and July that "spoofed" the boat's GPS and sent it in the wrong direction.

The team, out of the Cockrell School of Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics was able to successfully coerce the 213-yacht off-course.

“What we did was out in the open, it was against a live vehicle, a vessel -- an $80 million superyacht, controlling it with a $2,000 box,” Humphreys said. "This is unprecedented. This has never been shown in this kind of demonstration."

"That’s what so sinister about the attack that we did," he explained. "There were no alarms on the bridge. The GPS receiver showed a strong signal the whole time. You just need to have approximate line of sight visibility. Let’s say you had an unmanned drone, you could do it from 20 to 30 kilometers away or on the ocean you could do two to three kilometers."

GPS signals don't have authentication or encryption, so Humphrey's small device -- it's the size of a laptop or small briefcase -- can easily trick the receiver into believing his false signal.

"To build the box took a team of three to four PhDs," Humphrey said, "but it wouldn't take a PhD to operate it."

"People have come to trust their electronic chart displays," Humphreys said. "The signals have a detailed structure, but they don't have defenses against counterfeiting."

While his team conducted their test aboard the "White Rose of Drachs," that kind of proximity wouldn't be necessary to fool a GPS receiver. As long as there's a direct sight line, the false signal could overpower the real signal.

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