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  • Science & Technology

    Spoofing a Superyacht at Sea

    By Sandra Zaragoza, Cockrell School of Engineering
    Animation by Erik Zumalt, Cockrell School of Engineering
    Published: July 30, 2013

    Is it possible to coerce a 213-foot yacht off its course — without touching the boat’s steering wheel — using a custom-made GPS device? That’s what Todd Humphreys wanted to find out.

    Humphreys, a researcher in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at the Cockrell School of Engineering, and his team successfully “spoofed” an $80 million private yacht using the world’s first openly acknowledged GPS spoofing device. 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 animation in the video explains how the research team performed the GPS spoofing experiment on the yacht.

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

    “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.”

    In June, the team was invited aboard the yacht, called the White Rose of Drachs, while 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.

    This summer, assistant professor Todd Humphreys, in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, and his research team, graduate students Jahshan Bhatti and Ken Pesyna, spent time aboard the White Rose of Drachs, successfully performing GPS spoofing attacks on the 213-foot superyacht while it traveled on the Mediterranean Sea.

    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.

    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.

    Once control of the ship’s navigation system was gained, the team’s strategy was to coerce the ship onto a new course using subtle maneuvers that positioned the yacht 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. In reality, each course correction was setting the ship slightly off its course line. Inside the yacht’s command room, an electronic chart showed its progress along a fixed line, but in its wake there was 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,” Humphreys said.

    After several such maneuvers, the yacht had been tricked onto a parallel track hundreds of meters from its intended one — the team had successfully spoofed the ship.

    White Rose of Drachs

    The experiment helps illustrate the wide gap between the capabilities of spoofing devices and what the transportation industry’s technology can detect, Humphreys said.

    Chandra Bhat, director of the Center for Transportation Research at UT Austin, believes that the experiment highlights the vulnerability of the transportation sector to such 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,” Bhat said.

    It’s important for the public and policymakers to understand that spoofing poses a threat that has far-reaching implications for transportation, Humphreys said.

    “This experiment is applicable to other semi-autonomous vehicles, such as aircraft, which are now operated, in part, by autopilot systems,” Humphreys said. “We’ve got to put on our thinking caps and see what we can do to solve this threat quickly.”

    As part of an ongoing research project, funding and travel expenses for this experiment were supported by UT Austin’s Wireless Networking and Communications Group through the WNCG’s Industrial Affiliates program.

    Related Links:
    Cockrell School Researchers Demonstrate First Successful “Spoofing” of UAVs (Cockrell School News)
    UT Austin Researchers Successfully Spoof an $80 million Yacht at Sea (UT News)


    A version of this story originally appeared on the Cockrell School’s website.

    • Quote 2
      James said on Aug. 27, 2013 at 11:03 a.m.
      With advancements in technology, "Spoofing" could be circumvented if they devised some way to determine an authentic satellite signal as opposed to a spoofed one. Perhaps some kind of digital authentication signal sent right along with the coordinates signal. The idea that a signal to a ship of any kind could be spoofed is most definitely an appealing idea to the criminal element. It would be nothing for pirates to spoof say a cruise liner into an area where they could board the ship and systematically rob everyone on board. A frightful thought indeed!
    • Quote 2
      Peter said on Aug. 25, 2013 at 12:35 p.m.
      It gives a head start to pirates should they learn to spoof the boats. Just imagine what could happen if techniques like this one were used by some crazed Somali pirates.
    • Quote 2
      Mark said on Aug. 16, 2013 at 9:56 a.m.
      Jon, Please acquaint yourself with the navigation system of a commercial airliner before making such a statement. You might think differently. Also consider the navigation suite aboard a merchant vessel. It appears that Dr. Humphries has not, or he wouldn't make the statements he has about "taking control" of these aircraft and ships.
    • Quote 2
      Zumba said on Aug. 11, 2013 at 5:21 p.m.
      Seems like a great new tool for 21 century pirates. Maybe not the Somali ones :)
    • Quote 2
      mrkgllsp said on Aug. 8, 2013 at 2:54 p.m.
      Can this be used to spoof time-keeping receivers too? Most GPS receivers are used to coordinate clocks in automated time-sensitive transactions from banking to power grids.
    • Quote 2
      mrkgllsp said on Aug. 8, 2013 at 2:34 p.m.
      I think there is a threat in this. GPS is the primary means of fixing a vessels position and track its Course Over Ground. It wouldn't be surprising if a crew member or even a skipper attributed a contradictory compass heading to on-board deviations or as corrective steering for possible cross currents/winds. Perhaps the crew would eventually detect the discrepancy and begin to question the GPS data (which would take some guts), but it could result in a serous problem before it's recognized. A further serious threat, however, is with the AIS (Automatic Information System) data the ship is broadcasting over VHF. This signal contains the vessels position, SOG, COG (all obtained from the a GPS) and is broadcast to near by shipping. Another ship's AIS receiver processes the data and calculates such things as Closest Point of Approach (CPA) and Time to CPA. A ships crew may then act on this information to determine if a risk of collision is present and take action in accordance to the COLREGs. If the data they receive is faulty (or, indeed, shrewdly skewed to cause maximum havoc) they may take actions that are inappropriate for the situation, or take too long to correct the situation. At worse there could be collisions, at best some chaos and a lack of faith in the system which would begin to render it useless. It's too bad the revamped LORAN (E-loran) was canceled. It could have benefited greatly from the rise of the microprocessor to make it simpler to use than C-LORAN. It would've added another layer to the system. Electronic navigation has shown its value. It needs to be protected.
    • Quote 2
      Odysseus said on Aug. 8, 2013 at 11:36 a.m.
      Isn't the word "spoofing" being used the wrong way here? Spoofing involves making a device think that it is "talking" to something known when it is really talking to something else. Isn't it the GPS system that is being "spoofed"?
    • Quote 2
      Sandra Towery said on Aug. 8, 2013 at 10:44 a.m.
      Very interesting. Maybe we could use this off the coast of Africa where the pirates try to capture shipping goods. Use it against the bad guys!
    • Quote 2
      Jon said on Aug. 6, 2013 at 9:33 a.m.
      What you might have missed Mark, is the present administration and the USCG have decided not to continue with E-loran development and have scrapped the present loran system - it's gone. Once you're beyond the (electronic) sight of land radar doesn't help and aircraft radar isn't very good for navigation. Visual only works if you can see something - ever been in or above the clouds in an airplane or been out after dark? So other than inertial for aircraft which is too expensive for the little guy and celestial for shipboard work which is pretty primitive for 2013, we have no backup for satellite based systems like GPS and GLONASS.
    • Quote 2
      Robin-Jouan said on Aug. 5, 2013 at 12:24 p.m.
      Good demo, indeed ! A number of sensors could be spoofed. GPS with (adaptive) directive antennas gives some protection. But anyway it is difficult to spoof every existing sensor at the same time in the same place. Modern navigation is based on hybridizing several sensors and their associated data processing. So a defect with a sensor can be detected and overpassed.
    • Quote 2
      Mark said on Aug. 5, 2013 at 12:15 p.m.
      Dan Forsythe, I wish there was an article that could boil this down into one digest. The limitations of his "research" are not being publicized. It is hard to consider this "research" when he is grandstanding making irresponsible remarks about the threat. Is there a treat? Yes. Is it what he says? No. His previous spoofing example was a remotely controlled helicopter that was "captured" during a hover where the location and speed are known. The copter was only controlled in the vertical axis and only for roughly 2-3 seconds. I would not call that a sign of a threat to aircraft with sophisticated navigation systems that don't rely on GPS alone. Yet he makes the claim. For those that don't know the military navigation systems, google SAASM.
    • Quote 2
      Andre said on Aug. 5, 2013 at 10:25 a.m.
      Very interesting post about navigation. Thank you I learned a lot with you.
    • Quote 2
      Dar Forsythe said on Aug. 5, 2013 at 9:24 a.m.
      While this article is quite informative and points to potential dangers, I would like to hear more from Mark and if he has any articles that would help broaden my knowledge of navigation. Cheers, D~
    • Quote 2
      Omer said on Aug. 4, 2013 at 2:18 p.m.
      Hi, Very nice article, thank you.
    • Quote 2
      Jasa said on Aug. 4, 2013 at 1:00 p.m.
      I hope this experiment will continue and meet the success. As I don't agree with Mark, I think autocraft can get the impact of such attack. If its not now, well maybe some time. Everything is vulnerable, we just don't know the hole yet.
    • Quote 2
      Egeksk35 said on Aug. 4, 2013 at 12:21 p.m.
      I wish i was there lol... What is scary in this man, come on :))
    • Quote 2
      maruthi said on Aug. 1, 2013 at 6:08 p.m.
      Very nice research. Note: In military/air-force all the GPS signals from satellites will be cryptographically coded which could be read only by particular receiver. So there is no way it could be duped as mentioned in this article.
    • Quote 2
      Mark said on Aug. 1, 2013 at 8:40 a.m.
      If you know very little about navigation and GPS then you think this is "dangerous". In fact, Dr. Humphries has taken several liberties with the facts and has not told the whole story. The sky is not falling. Fact: The vast majority of aircraft using autopilots will not be spoofed. If you don't use any other means of navigation (Radar, visual, Loran, etc.) then you will be spoofed. Very, very few times will this be a viable threat.
    • Quote 2
      Bill said on July 31, 2013 at 10:12 a.m.
      This is downright scary! I'm glad these guys are on our side and I hope they can develop anti-spoofing for world-wide navigation.
    • Quote 2
      Marsha said on July 31, 2013 at 9:34 a.m.
      Informative, thought provoking and well written report. Exciting new research challenges ahead for military and homeland security!
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