GPS spoofing on the high seas was recently demonstrated by a team of researchers from the University of Texas, who successfully deceived GPS equipment aboard an $80 million super yacht, causing it to travel off course without the boat's operators knowledge, showcasing a security vulnerability.
The spoofing, which occurred in in late June-early July on the Ionian Sea, was led by assistant professor Todd Humphreys of the university's Cockrell School of Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, who carried out the experiment with the consent of the boat's captain.
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"What we did was out in the open. It was against a live vehicle, a vessel—an $80 million super yacht, controlling it with a $2,000 box," Humphreys told Arstechnica.com
. "This is unprecedented. This has never been shown in this kind of demonstration. That’s what's so sinister about the attack that we did."
Humphreys was assisted by several of his students in the exercise, according to the University of Texas' website
Because the "White Rose of Drachs" super yacht's GPS signal lacked authentication and an encryption system, the professor's device, which was no larger than the size of a laptop, was able to guide the massive vessel using a fake signal.
According to Humphreys, hackers can be extremely far away and still hack their target vessel as long as they are able to see it without anything obstructing their view.
"The GPS receiver showed a strong signal the whole time. You just need to have approximate line of sight visibility," Humphreys said. "Let’s say you had an unmanned drone, you could do it from 20 to 30 kilometers away or on the ocean you could do two to three kilometers."
Despite that engineering the box took three or four people with PhDs, "it wouldn't take a PhD to operate it," Humphreys told Arstechnica.com.
"People have come to trust their electronic chart displays," Humphreys added. "The signals have a detailed structure, but they don't have defenses against counterfeiting."
So how can ship operators protect themselves from spoofing attempts?
"The most effective defenses that we’ve found are the most costly and the least practical," Humphreys told Ars. "[You’d need to add] digital signatures that would introduce unpredictable features that would make it challenging for a spoofer. It wouldn’t require any new hardware, but it would require some change to the message that they’re sending out, so you can include digital signatures. Unpredictability is the key. Conceptually, it’s fairly straightforward."
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