College students hijack $80 million yacht with GPS signal spoofing

A GPS spoofing project shows how easy it could be to take control of very powerful equipment.

A group of students at the University of Texas at Austin built and successfully tested a GPS spoofing device to remotely redirect an $80 million yacht onto a different route, the Houston Chronicle reports. The project, which was completed with the permission of the yacht's owners in the Mediterranean Sea this past June, is explained in the video below.

Because the yacht's crew relies entirely on GPS signal for direction, the students were able to lead the yacht onto a different course without the knowledge of anyone on-board. The GPS spoofing device essentially over-powered all other GPS signals using until the spoofed signal was the only one that the yacht followed. The yacht's navigation system merely recognized it as another signal, so the yacht changed course without setting off any alarms.

The team then used the GPS spoofing device to convince the ship's crew to redirect onto a different route voluntarily. By changing the signal on the spoofing device, the students led the crew to believe that the ship was drifting off-course to the left. In response, the crew steered the ship to the right, thinking that it would get the ship back on course, when it actually brought the ship off the course entirely.

GPS spoofing is not very common, but it has already raised concerns with international regulators. As this Economist article points out, satellite spoofing is believed to be responsible for a brief daily GPS outage near the London Stock Exchange. The most likely perpetrator, according to the Economist, is a consumer spoofing device used by a delivery driver or anyone concerned that their employer is tracking their driving route.

These consumer spoofing devices, the sale of which has been banned in the U.S., can still be legally purchased in the UK, and are available for as cheap as $78 (£50). 

And, of course, North Korea has already experimented with the technology, reportedly blocking GPS signal in South Korea on several occasions. One such attack launched in 2012 affected 1,016 aircraft and 254 ships.

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