AUSTIN (KXAN) — A team of students and an assistant engineering professor were able to surreptitiously move an $80 million yacht off its course on the high seas last month.
The feat, carried out with the consent of the 213-foot vessel's crew, used a technology called "spoofing" to fool the yacht's GPS system, according to a UT news release sent Monday.
The exercise, carried out in international waters off the Italian coast, was not just for fun. Its purpose "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 release said.
The team wanted to show that spoofing can be a serious threat to marine transportation.
"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," said Todd Humphreys, assistant professor at UT's Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at the Cockrell School of Engineering,
"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."
The background from the UT release:
"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.
"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."
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