A team of radio navigation researchers from the University of Texas at Austin used a custom-built GPS ‘spoofing’ device to change the course of a $80 million yacht; without the vessel’s navigational systems detecting a hitch.

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

Spoofing could be used on semi-autonomous vehicles, such as aircrafts, which are now operated, in part, by autopilot systems, to veer them off course as well, say the researchers.

The research was led by assistant professor Todd Humphreys of the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at the Cockrell School of Engineering.

Todd Humphreys (Assistant professor, Cockrell School of Engineering): 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.

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.

[Image courtesy: The University of Texas at Austin]