The world’s GPS system is vulnerable to hackers or terrorists who could use it to hijack ships -- even commercial airliners, according to a frightening new study that exposes a huge potential hole in national security.
Using a laptop, a small antenna and an electronic GPS “spoofer” built for $3,000, GPS expert Todd Humphreys and his team at the University of Texas took control of the sophisticated navigation system aboard an $80 million, 210-foot super-yacht in the Mediterranean Sea.
“We injected our spoofing signals into its GPS antennas and we’re basically able to control its navigation system with our spoofing signals,” Humphreys told Fox News.
'Imagine shutting down a port. Imagine running a ship aground. These are the kinds of implications we’re worried about.'
- Todd Humphreys, a GPS expert at the University of Texas
By feeding counterfeit radio signals to the yacht, the UT team was able to drive the ship far off course, steer it left and right, potentially take it into treacherous waters, even put it on a collision course with another ship. All the time, the ship’s GPS system reported the vessel was calmly moving in a straight line, along its intended course. No alarms, no indication that anything was amiss.
Capt. Andrew Schofield, who invited Humphreys and his team aboard to conduct the experiment told Fox News he and his crew were stunned by the results.
“Professor Humphreys and his team did a number of attacks and basically we on the bridge were absolutely unaware of any difference,” Schofield said. “I was gobsmacked -- but my entire deck team was similarly gobsmacked,” he told Fox News.
The possible consequences, according to Humphreys, are both ominous and far-reaching.
“For maritime traffic, there are big implications,” Humphreys told Fox News from the bridge of the White Rose of Drachs. “You’ve got 90 percent of the world’s cargo going across the seas. Imagine shutting down a port. Imagine running a ship aground. These are the kinds of implications we’re worried about.”
As the Costa Concordia tragically proved, a cruise ship off-course can have disastrous results. The Exxon Valdez was only narrowly off its intended track when it ran aground on Bligh Reef, spilling 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound.
Humphreys told Fox News the easiest and most sinister “spoof” is to slowly slide a vessel onto a parallel course. Over time, the compass might read the same heading, but the ship could be far from where the crew thinks it is.
“You’re actually moving about a kilometer off of your intended track in a parallel line and you could be running aground instead of going through the proper channel,” Humphreys said.
And because aircraft have a similar navigation system to that aboard the White Rose of Drachs, Humphreys says a commercial airliner could be “spoofed” as well.
“Going after an expensive vessel on the seas and going after a commercial airliner has a lot of parallels,” he told Fox News.
The government is aware of this critical vulnerability. Last year, Fox News reported exclusively on a more primitive experiment Humphreys conducted using a small, unmanned drone. He was able to feed “spoofing” signals into the drone’s GPS, causing it to nearly fall out of the sky. As a result, Humphreys was called before Congress to testify, and also spoke with officials from the FAA, CIA and Pentagon.
This latest experiment takes Humphreys’ research to a whole new level.
“Before we couldn’t control the UAV. We could only push it off course. This time my students have designed a closed loop controller such that they can dictate the heading of this vessel even when the vessel wants to go a different direction,” Humphreys said.
Yet the Department of Homeland Security has -- according to Humphreys -- been “fumbling around in the dark” on GPS security, doing little to address the threat. Texas Congressman Mike McCaul, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee is incensed.
“It's a very serious homeland security issue that we've asked the secretary to review and look at and she's never responded to my requests,” McCaul told Fox News. “The department seems to be thumbing its nose at it, saying it has no jurisdiction over this issue and not really showing any interest in this issue at all.”
McCaul, along with Senators Coburn and Collins have asked the Government Accountability Office to look into what DHS is and isn’t doing to address this critical threat to national security.
A draft report is due in August, which could, depending on the results, trigger more Congressional hearings.
Meantime, Schofield is sounding a global alarm.
“People need to know this kind of thing is possible with a relatively small budget and they can with a very simple system steer the ship off-course -- without the Captain knowing,” he told Fox News.
John Roberts joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in January 2011 as a senior national correspondent and is based in the Atlanta bureau.