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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 mechanics …

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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.

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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.

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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.

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FAIL

WRONG!

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

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Anonymous Coward

Re: WRONG!

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

A very bold statement to make, Sir.

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ship's two GPS transmitters?

sure you mean antenna for the receivers?

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Joke

Re: ship's two GPS transmitters?

Must be a Stephen Fry GPS

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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.

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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.

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MrT
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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...

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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.

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Facepalm

Re: Subeditor, hallo?! yoo-hoo!

"I read El Reg for *accurate* reportage"

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

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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?

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Time to dig out the Sextant

and all those marine charts that are gathering dust.

At least the hackers can't take them over.

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DJO
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Re: Time to dig out the Sextant

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

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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.

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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 :)

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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. :-)

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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.

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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!

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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.

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

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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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...

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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)?

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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?

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Headmaster

Inigo Montoya moment

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

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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...

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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.

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

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

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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 ?

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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.

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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.

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@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?".

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"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.

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

Another example of life imitating art.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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...

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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 ?

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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.

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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.

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