Sunday, July 01, 2012

U.S. researchers use inexpensive 'GPS spoofing' device to hijack drone

Iran has, in the past, claimed to have captured a U.S. drone aircraft by spoofing its GPS system. While quite a few mocked that claim, it appears it's certainly possible. American researchers did the same, with a cheap, university-built system.

Professor Todd Humphreys and his team at the University of Texas at Austin's Radionavigation Laboratory took control of a drone by hacking into its GPS system. Humphrey's device cost a mere $1,000, yet he called it the most advanced GPS spoofing system ever built.

Using a more powerful signal than the one that is being transmitted by satellites orbiting the Earth, the device tricks the drone into thinking it's someplace other than where it actually is. In effect, such a system can hijack a drone.

The spoofed drone used an unencrypted GPS signal, which is normally used by civilian planes. That means that given the right equipment, a terrorist could, in fact, hijack a drone just as the 9/11 terrorists hijacked U.S. commercial airliners, and turn them into missiles.

The difference is, these drones are pretty small, and won't do anywhere near the damage of a commercial airliner. Still, the threat is there. Humphreys said, "What if you could take down one of these drones delivering FedEx packages and use that as your missile? That’s the same mentality the 9-11 attackers had.”

Naturally, one would think it would be more difficult to hack into a military drone, but Noel Sharkey, co-founder of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control still says it's not that difficult.

"It's easy to spoof an unencrypted drone. Anybody technically skilled could do this - it would cost them some £700 (about $1,100)for the equipment and that's it. [...]

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"But the big worry is - it also means that it wouldn't be too hard for [a very skilled person] to work out how to un-encrypt military drones and spoof them, and that could be extremely dangerous because they could turn them on the wrong people."

Did Iran already manage to do that? Not only has the country claimed that it used GPS spoofing  to bring down a U.S. drone - an RQ-170 Sentinel that American authorities confirmed has been captured  - it has also claims to have been able to extract much useful information from it.

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