Rendering the $80 million vessel White Rose of Drachs electronic maps and charts useless, a team of researchers from the University of Texas at Austin recently tricked the 213-foot superyacht off its course using a custom-made GPS device.
Todd Humphreys, team leader and assistant professor at UT's Cockrell School of Engineering commented, "People have come to trust their electronic chart displays, the signals have a detailed structure, but they don't have defences against counterfeiting” electronic chart displays get their information from civilian GPS signals — which are not encrypted. Humphreys added. As a result, he explained, "the concept of GPS spoofing has been known for maybe 20 years."
Humphreys has been working on building a spoofing device for the last three or four years. "The device we've got is the size of a large laptop or a small brief case," Humphreys says. "To build the box took a team of three to four PhDs ... but it wouldn't take a PhD to operate it."
The way the device works is fairly straightforward. It creates false GPS signals, which slowly overpower authentic signals until they gain control of a navigation system. Once the false signals are in control, the navigation system is tricked into believing that the vessel is slowly drifting off course. The crew will, naturally, initiate a course correction — but in reality this correction will actually be what takes the vessel off its original plot line.
Humphreys continued "It's pretty breath-taking really,"While his team was on board the White Rose of Drachs — the superyacht which they took off course with permission — such proximity wasn't actually necessary. "You wouldn't need to be onboard the vessel, you could be miles away on another ship, if you were airborne, you could be 20-30 miles away. All that matters is that by the time your signal arrives at the vessel, it's stronger than the real signal."
Humphreys makes it clear that a clever crew (or one which is warned about spoofing) could catch on to attempts to trick a vessel's navigation system. But even if crew members become aware of oddities, their options are limited.