back to article Texas students hijack superyacht with GPS-spoofing luggage

Students from the University of Texas successfully piloted an $80m superyacht sailing 30 miles offshore in the Mediterranean Sea by overriding the ship's GPS signals without any alarms being raised. The team, led by assistant professor Todd Humphreys from UT Austin's department of aerospace engineering and engineering …

COMMENTS

This topic is closed for new posts.
  1. Scott Pedigo
    Paris Hilton

    Next you know, someone in Hollywood will be shopping a script which involves a super-villain taking control of spacecraft as part of a plot for world domination + profit. No wait...

    Paris, because she never got to be a Bond girl.

    1. The Man Who Fell To Earth Silver badge
      Boffin

      Answer: INS

      This is why good navigation systems, for military aircraft & weapons (e.g. JDAM) for example, also have an inertial navigation system (INS) in them and use that as the primary navigation sensor. If the GPS location is much outside the INS integration error, then one knows something is amiss. Since INS isn't jammable, you know the GPS is the thing that is messed up. Especially if the INS system has redundant INS sensors.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Answer: INS

        And the INS drifts which is why you regularly reset it from the known GPS position.

        So all you have to do is drift the GPS and nobody notices.

        1. The Man Who Fell To Earth Silver badge
          FAIL

          WRONG!

          The integration drift on INS is small enough over mission times you don't casually reset it like that.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: WRONG!

            > The integration drift on INS is small enough over mission times

            A very bold statement to make, Sir.

  2. schafdog

    ship's two GPS transmitters?

    sure you mean antenna for the receivers?

    1. This post has been deleted by its author

    2. tomban
      Joke

      Re: ship's two GPS transmitters?

      Must be a Stephen Fry GPS

  3. John Sager

    Subeditor, hallo?! yoo-hoo!

    GPS transmitters? They are way above us, and in the spoofers' kit, not in the ship's kit. I read El Reg for *accurate* reportage & interesting comment. Please maintain standards.

    1. FrankAlphaXII
      Meh

      Re: Corrections Policy

      You're absolutely correct, and it could be fixed, but unless you hit the "Send Corrections" link at the bottom of the page and actually tell the editor and/or author, they probably wont notice you're bitching on the forums because most of them don't read them.

      1. MrT

        Re: Corrections Policy

        Correct as ever, FA, but ... I don't see that link on the mobile web view... either I'm being blind again ;-) or it needs adding to m.theregister.co.uk stories... for the benefit of those using mobile browsers like on phones, ipads etc

        I hardly ever use a desktop browser to read ElReg these days, (though used to access on nothing else), which is one of the reasons most of my posts don't have any subject icons (I never post as AC, but that's probably the only time a mobile browser user would get an icon) - maybe the OP is unaware of the "Send Corrections" link, or equally just doesn't see it on their screen...

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Corrections Policy

          It would be nice if they added the icons to the mobile view... It's not as if mobile is too slow to cope with a few tiny icons. Plus I tend to use the mobile site on the desktop, less adverts, and less obviously not work.

          1. Psyx
            Pint

            Re: Corrections Policy

            Quite: Why bother politely correcting an error and do the author a favour when one can instead shout about it and try to make them look stupid, after all?

    2. qwertyuiop
      Facepalm

      Re: Subeditor, hallo?! yoo-hoo!

      "I read El Reg for *accurate* reportage"

      I think I can see where you went wrong...

  4. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

    Time to dig out the Sextant

    and all those marine charts that are gathering dust.

    At least the hackers can't take them over.

    1. DJO Silver badge

      Re: Time to dig out the Sextant

      That's right especially now all those fragile paper charts have been safely digitised, oh hang on........

      1. Crazy Operations Guy

        Re: Time to dig out the Sextant

        International shipping regulations require that ships over a certain tonnage are required to have a full complement of navigational tools (Water-proofed charts, Sextant, compass, star charts,etc) and the captain, first officer and second officer must be trained in their use.

        Beside, any captain worth their salt can identify that they are off-course from just the stars or landmarks.

    2. GotThumbs
      Thumb Up

      Re: Time to dig out the Sextant

      Canadian Merchant Marine students are still required to learn how to navigate using plotted charts and sextants. Computers/components can fail and GPS can be flawed/manipulated. With no computer support stores at sea....one must always be able to rely on the tried and true method IMO.

      1. Lusty

        Re: Time to dig out the Sextant

        "learn how to navigate using plotted charts and sextants"

        All well and good until you realise what they were using to set the ships clocks until they noticed GPS was wonky...oh yes, they were using those atomic clocks in the sky otherwise known as GPS :)

        1. Crazy Operations Guy

          Re: Time to dig out the Sextant

          Ships are required to carry a mechanical clock, which is accurate enough for navigation in open water without nearby landmarks, the atomic clocks are only used by the other idiot-instruments.

  5. David Pollard

    Students .. $80m superyacht ... Mediterranean Sea

    One might imagine that the aerospace and engineering course will become rather popular.

  6. GotThumbs

    This is an issue for incompetent crew only IMO.

    Total reliance on GPS navigation/computers has always an issue to keep in mind. Any crew worth thier salt would not rely 100% on GPS for navigation. Canadian Merchant Marine students are still required to learn how to navigate using plotted charts and sextants. Computers/components can fail and GPS can be flawed/manipulated. With no computer support stores at sea....one must always be able to rely on the tried and true method IMO.

    Ask Michael Scott about the flaws in GPS devices. :-)

    1. Anonymous Dutch Coward
      Pirate

      Re: This is an issue for incompetent crew only IMO.

      This is actually an issue for all crews, I'd say.

      Crews routinely rely on their instruments to provide them with correct data. They tend to believe what their instruments tell them - it's human nature. Only a paranoid would go out and check if the GPS is right all the time.

      Pirate icon because... well, it's obvious, really.

      1. Androgynous Cupboard Silver badge

        Re: This is an issue for incompetent crew only IMO.

        I disagree.

        You're correct that no-one on a boat relies on GPS alone - when they first came out I was once unable to get a fix for several days, and everyone knows they're only giving you a position +/- a few metres.

        But this one is different, because the GPS will be giving you a strong signal which looks valid. It's not a failure mode for GPS anyone has ever seen and it's certainly not one people look for. In fact if you used it to modify the course by 5 degrees, most people would verify this against their compass and assume the compass was off, rather than the GPS. Likewise comparing against a log for speed (which are notoriously innaccurate, at least on yachts, as the impellers tend to foul).

        As for falling back to a sextant, great idea, but it's a pain to use, time consuming and you need a clear sky. You're not going to shoot a sight unless your GPS has no fix, or you need the practice.

        Put this on a boat doing an atlantic crossing, have it alter the course by 1 degree or 1 knot, and you could wind up hundreds of miles out without even noticing. With a bit more effort you could put a boat onto an isolated submerged reef without any difficulty at all.

        Maybe the residents of Cornwall should get some of these and pull ships onto the rocks for the cargo like their grandparents did with lights!

        1. Tom 38 Silver badge

          Re: This is an issue for incompetent crew only IMO.

          If you pootering about in the med, there's not much that can go seriously wrong - "Oh look, there's Africa, this aint right". At most you're going to be slightly off course.

          However, if you're sailing from Med to Caribbean, not an awful lot of scenery. One degree here or there, and you're in Boston or Rio.

          1. Tom 13

            Re: This is an issue for incompetent crew only IMO.

            You're working from the MS mindset. You need to be working from the black hat mindset.

            I've got you slightly off course. Maybe I've put you on a reef. Maybe it's only a couple hundred nautical miles off. Maybe I've put you in the middle of my raiding parties. Maybe that's all I need to take you down before your forces can adjust to the fact that you sent them to the wrong location for the rescue call.

            1. BongoJoe

              Re: This is an issue for incompetent crew only IMO.

              What about the captain of the boat himself being organised in a spot of smuggling?

              He could be controlling the spoofing devices to send the ship to another pre-arranged destination and safely drop stuff off and, all the while, the ship's data loggers will have him elsewhere exactly where he should have been.

              Perhaps I may have just written that Hollywood script...

        2. Sandtreader
          Pirate

          Re: This is an issue for incompetent crew only IMO.

          Indeed, although everyone has done their DR/EP/Astro stuff in the classroom there probably aren't many who could do it live and even then they'd only try if the GPS fails completely.

          But as a modern day Cornish wrecker (=large-scale beachcomber, really) I feel obliged to point out that the whole leading ships onto rocks thing is highly debatable; sure they made use of stuff that washed up, but there are more real stories of heroic rescue than myths about deliberate wrecking. Plus if it ever happened you're talking a lot older than our grandparents generation - I caught the 'wrecking' bug from my Granddad, but he was the local Police Sargeant!

      2. J.G.Harston Silver badge

        Re: This is an issue for incompetent crew only IMO.

        Don't people "driving " ships ever look out of the window?

        1. Tom 13

          Re: ever look out of the window?

          Sure. Water, water everywhere. One bit looks pretty much the same as the rest. Hence the need for navigational tools in the first place.

  7. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Unhappy

    Obvious question. How many *merchant* ship have separate INS/GPS systems?

    I'll take a wild guess and say not too many.

    Yes it sounds like the plot of a Bond film (and actually was) but that does not mean that more discrete use would not be possible.

    The 21st century equivalent of "wreckers" shutting down light houses in order to lure ships onto hazards and salvage the cargoes (and/or any valuables from anyone who didn't make, and sometimes anyone who did)?

    1. DavCrav Silver badge
      Headmaster

      Re: Obvious question. How many *merchant* ship have separate INS/GPS systems?

      "Yes it sounds like the plot of a Bond film (and actually was) but that does not mean that more discrete use would not be possible."

      Did you highlight 'discrete' in bold to show that you don't know how to spell it?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Headmaster

        Inigo Montoya moment

        @DavCRav - It is spelled correctly. Whether the OP chose the correct homophone is another matter.

      2. Kubla Cant Silver badge

        Re: Obvious question. How many *merchant* ship have separate INS/GPS systems?

        Perhaps he's a victim of spellchecker-spoofing equipment.

    2. MondoMan
      Pirate

      Re: Last minute reprieve for Italian cruise ship captain?

      Perhaps now he can claim that "wreckers" infiltrated GPS spoofing equipment on board, leading the Costa Concordia to its doom...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Last minute reprieve for Italian cruise ship captain?

        Given that another Costa floating blockhouse has just sailed to within 20 metres of buildings in Venice in broad daylight, I suspect his defence is that the big boy told him to do it.

  8. Don Bannister

    Unless the team had the luxury of a cruise from Texas, I wonder what airport security / TSA would make of a box of GPS spoofing kit. Though in practice, my experience suggests that the more complicated something looks, the less attention it gets !

    Would I be right in assuming the equipment has to spoof multiple GPS satellites ?

    1. kain preacher

      Who says that the TSA would know what they are looking at ? Either checked it or they could just lie. If you never seen the equipment before why would just assume it was GPS jamming kit other than some electronics. He could just say I'm with the University of Texas and this is research equipment.

    2. Wzrd1

      That would be the only proper way to spoof GPS. If you only spoof one satellite, some software will ignore the wildly erroneous reading and most software will gripe about not "seeing" the rest of the constellation.

      The only thing these student did was prove the technology of GPS and the inverse square law. Who'd have thought that a few watts right next to an antenna could overpower a 26 watts 21000km away?

      Damn, but people go off over the dumbest shit.

      1. Anonymous Dutch Coward

        @Wzrd: Seeing is believing

        Unfortunately, as I've found out in the IT security field, seeing is often believing.

        Demonstrating a dead simple attack has managers ooh-ing and aah-ing while writing up the same thing in a report gets questions like "yes, my tech guys tell me this can happen but aren't you all bullshitting?".

  9. Roger Greenwood

    "no captain relies solely on GPS"

    Unless you are in charge of a luxury liner. Costa Concordia captain should be trying this for his defence.

  10. Kev99

    Apparently, Humphreys is a James Bond fan, since this is basically what was done in Tomorrow Never Dies.

    Another example of life imitating art.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Redirecting cruise missiles in flight will remain in the fictional realm for the time being"

    Cruise missiles also use more than just GPS to get to its target; they use a map of the terrain as well.

    1. MondoMan

      Do modern cruise missiles still do so?

      The original Tomahawks used TERCOM, a terrain-following setup, but I thought the modern revisions dumped that for GPS and some sort of terminal guidance. Besides, terrain-following usually doesn't work so well at sea!

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      > Cruise missiles also use more than just GPS to get to its target; they use a map of the terrain as well.

      And engines.

  12. BigScaryTiger

    NAVWASS

    IIRC.... NAVWASS on UK Jaguars and others used a system of the following.....

    Program into the nav comp your known position using Eastings and Northings.

    Take off.

    Aircraft gyros and pitot tubes giving references to turns, speeds etc will update the nav comp in real time using a nice mix of both analogue and digital electronic gubbins.

    No GPS required and certainly no GPS was used in my time in avionics.

    Navigational error? Erm, none that I can ever remember.

    1. Dagg

      Re: NAVWASS

      >pitot tubes

      Aren't these the things that have problems with insects ice etc? I remember an incident with iced pitot tubes and an air france airbus in the middle of the Atlantic...

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        WAAS

        Wasn't the purpose of WAAS to prevent GPS spoofing so that the FAA could use it to replace nav beacons without having to give every aircraft a military recv?

        Anybody know how WAAS (and presumably EGNOS) prevent spoofing? Does it look for different doppler shifts from the stationary GSO satelites ?

        1. Lusty

          Re: WAAS

          No, WAAS and EGNOS are just a ground based GPS transmitter which sends out corrections. Because it knows where it is it takes the slightly wobbly information from real GPS and makes a comparison which it then tells other receivers about.

          1. Lusty

            Re: WAAS

            Sorry missed my own point - the WAAS station won't be in range of the very weak spoof signal so it will be transmitting that there is very little wrong as usual.

            1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

              Re: WAAS

              WAAS is used to improve the accuracy in commercial receivers but its original requirement was data integrity - although I think back in the day, that was assuming software/transmission errors rather than deliberate attacks

  13. ecofeco Silver badge

    Bond?

    More like William Gibson.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "no captain relies solely on GPS"

    Right. Just as no lorry driver relies solely on GPS, so that they might drive into an obviously impassable ford.

    And no sea captain would deviate from their planned course just to show off to their friends on a nearby island, without checking if there are any sand banks nearby.

    1. Otto is a bear.

      Re: "no captain relies solely on GPS"

      Right, I think you are missing the word sensible there, when talking about lorry drivers. I live in a village with narrow roads and sharp turns, and still they try to come through.

      Also delivery companies tend to use routing software that takes no account of the roads leading to a delivery, there's a road, we can send a 7.5 ton truck down it, and the drivers blindly follow the instructions, luckily our local authority is sensible and uses small service vehicles. I always tell them not to.

      BTW GPS spoofing has been going on for years, in fact in the UK the MOD posts warnings in areas where they re doing it, so that the humble motorist won't be surprised to find their sat navs showing them the wrong location.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: "no captain relies solely on GPS"

        Narrow roads and sharp turns? We had an Eastern European artic driver try to drive down a flight of steps. I don't know what happened after that.

        And then there was the one who ignored the 17t limit trying to reach another village, and came to the T junction with trees on all the corners and no rear visibility. I believe he had to be hauled out backwards with a tractor.

        GPS is not actually the main problem, inability to read road signs certainly is.

        1. This post has been deleted by its author

  15. Mr C
    Joke

    android 4.3 will solve your problems.

    it allows for location based on WiFi hotspots, without actually connecting to them.

    Now then, all we need is to cover the ocean with buoys with WiFi hotspots on them and presto, ships with a Android OS know where they are and everyone has WiFi coverage..

    win-win, you can't go wrong with this one :P

    1. This post has been deleted by its author

  16. Tim Wolfe-Barry

    "Before the panic starts, it should be pointed out that the Texans are spoofing civilian GPS systems."

    Speaking as a WAFI (Lewis will know...) that worries me MORE.

    Most of the world's freight moves about, often in quite confined waters (Dover Strait anyone), with minimal human supervision - supertankers typically have a crew of ~20, which means about 6 on watch at any one time (3-watch system), so that's 6 dozy guys following the GPS tracking up the english channel all night.

    A navigational error of 1 degree at the start of the channel will subtend an error of 6 miles at the other end, 350 miles away. So if I drift a ship by only that 1 degree as it passes Scilly, I can easily make it hit the coast at Calais.

    Of course you hope that someone might notice this and correct it but even so...

  17. DarkWalker

    "Before the panic starts, it should be pointed out that the Texans are spoofing civilian GPS systems. Cracking encrypted military signals has never been demonstrated, although jamming them is possible, and redirecting cruise missiles in flight will remain in the fictional realm for the time being."

    So you jam the military band while spoofing the civilian band, so military kit will only have the spoofed civilian signal (plus internal gyroscopic, inertial, and perhaps image sensors) to go by. At the very least this would make the military kit far less precise, as it turns off GPS completely to avoid the risk of being spoofed; at worst it will use the spoofed civilian signal.

  18. RickyR

    Master Mariner

    As a Master Mariner (Unlimited) sailing on superyachts and previously on large cruise vessels I understand the theory behind corrupting a GPS signal, but fail to see how other processes on the bridge couldn't have identified the deviation.

    Understand that if the vessels autopilot is directly slaved to the 'trackline' on the GPS and is blindly following the COG, there will be a pre-set limit for when the GPS COG and Gyro Headings diverge, and this occurs on all of the major bridge ECDIS/Navigation systems I've used.

    I have been in vessels when GPS jamming has occurred or interference has occurred and the GPS does go into error at these times, which will again cause alerts on the GPS/Navigational system.

    So perhaps if a minor alteration was made towards a submerged reef with no further above waterline features identifiable by radar were usable within 12 miles then you could lead a vessel into danger, however I think it would take some effort.

    Once a vessel is within 6 or so miles of land and engaged in coastal navigation, the GPS becomes largely redundant for a big vessel.

This topic is closed for new posts.

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021