High-Tech Pirates: Researchers Hack A Yacht Via GPS

Undetected by the ship's crew, the 213-foot vessel veered off course after researchers deployed a custom-made spoofing device on the GPS system.

Using a homemade spoofing device small enough to be concealed in a suitcase, researchers from the University of Texas managed to hack the GPS of a yacht in the Mediterranean and bring it off its programmed course. Professor Todd Humphreys, assistant professor of the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at UT's Cockrell School of Engineering, said, "the ship actually turned and we could all feel it, but the chart display and the crew only saw a straight line."

The experiment took place last month in international waters close to the Italian coast. By turning up the signal on the spoofing device until it was stronger than the signal coming from the GPS satellites overhead, the researcher was able to gain control of the vessel's navigation systems. From there on, it was plain sailing for the "attacker." By posting a change of direction signal, even by just three degrees, the ship's crew are alerted that the ship is drifting off course—erroneously. The crew correct the navigation system, thereby altering the correct course to one that really is three degrees off course.

Professor Humphreys believes the system can be used to throw aircraft off course as well. “This experiment is applicable to other semi-autonomous vehicles, such as aircraft, which are now operated, in part, by autopilot systems,” he said. “We’ve got to put on our thinking caps and see what we can do to solve this threat quickly.” Earlier this week, white-hat hackers revealed what they'd been able to do with the in-car computers of Toyota and Ford vehicles.

Somali pirates are already high-tech, but using this method could bring even more stealth to their dirty work. If this becomes one of their fail-safe piracy tools, what will their pursuants bring to the table, already groaning with high-tech trickery?

[Image: Flickr user EEPaul]

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