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Dr. Todd Humphreys, The University of Texas at Austin – GPS Hijacking

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Todd Humphreys of the University of Texas at Austin describes a newfound threat to the transportation industry.

Todd Humphreys is an assistant professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at the University of Texas at Austin. He specializes in the application of optimal estimation techniques to problems in satellite navigation, orbital and attitude dynamics, and signal processing. His recent focus has been on defending against intentional GPS spoofing and jamming.

About Dr. Humphreys

Dr. Todd Humphreys – GPS Hijacking

The answer was Yes.  The question: Could you hijack my yacht?  Now, the rest of the story: I had just finished telling a conference audience how we brought down an drone with a specialized attack against its GPS sensor.  A distinguished-looking man with a British accent handed me his card.  "I don't suppose you could do the same with a 65-meter SuperYacht?"

Three months later, two students and I are aboard the 80 million dollar White Rose of Drachs off the southern coast of Italy.  We've brought along our custom-made GPS spoofer -- the only publicly-acknowledged device that can surreptitiously fool any commercial GPS unit into reporting a false position or time.  Captain Andrew Schofield is at the helm of the White Rose.  He's carefully charted a course around land and underwater hazards.

Our hijacking experiment is, in formal terms, an investigation of maritime navigation security.  From the upper deck, student Jahshan Bhatti, acting in the role of attacker, commands our spoofer to transmit a faint ensemble of counterfeit signals.  Increasing power, he obtains control over the ship's primary and backup GPS receivers.  The takeover is clandestine: both GPS receivers report continuous healthy signals, and no alarm is triggered on the bridge.

Bhatti now commands the GPS spoofer to put the ship on a new course, slightly to starbord of the original one. The electronic chart display shows the ship drifting slowly to port as if driven by an ocean current.  The captain, or the autopilot, applies a course correction to bring the ship back onto the course line.  But, in reality, the maneuver has put the ship on a different course -- on the course that Bhatti commanded.
And so a story with improbable beginnings culminates with an improbable final scene in which a two thousand dollar box the size of a small briefcase controls an $80M yacht the size of a jumbo jet.


Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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