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Maritime Industry Warned Of 'GPS Spoofing' Threat

by Jason Gorringe,, London

01 August 2013

A research team from the University of Texas's Cockrell School of Engineering has highlighted security flaws that can be easily manipulated to steer a vessel off course without alerting a yacht's crew. Using the world's first openly acknowledged "GPS-spoofing" device, the team were able to reroute a 213-foot, USD80m private yacht.

Spoofing is a technique that creates false civil GPS signals to gain control of a vessel’s GPS receivers. The purpose of the 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.

The experiment took place in June about 30 miles off the coast of Italy on board the yacht, White Rose of Drachs, while it sailed in international waters.

From the White Rose’s upper deck, graduate students Jahshan Bhatti and Ken Pesyna broadcasted 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.

Once control of the ship’s navigation system was achieved, the team’s strategy was to coerce the ship onto a new course. By communicating subtle differences in the ship's position relative to its actual position — as communicated by the GPS spoofing device to the ship's navigation systems — the team was able to prompt the crew to initiate course correction. This was repeated by the team multiple times, and corrective action was taken each time. Inside the yacht's command room, the electronic charts showed the yacht was making progress along a fixed line, while in reality there should have been a pronounced curve showing that 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," Assistant professor Todd Humphreys, who led the experiment, said.

The 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. Humphreys and a group of students earlier undertook the first public "capture" of a GPS-guided unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, using a GPS device created by the group.

Unlike GPS signal blocking or jamming, spoofing triggers no alarms on the ship’s navigation equipment. To the ship’s GPS devices, the team’s false signals were indistinguishable from authentic signals, allowing the spoofing attack to happen covertly.

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

"The surprising ease with which Todd and his team were able to control a [multi-million dollar] yacht is evidence that we must invest much more in securing our transportation systems against potential spoofing," Chandra Bhat, director of the Center for Transportation Research at The University of Texas at Austin, said.

TAGS: marine

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