August 15, 2013

The Rime of the gobsmacked mariner

One begins to seriously question the competence of professionals that get gobsmacked too easily, which is what I did when I read the story- first carried on Fox news and faithfully reproduced by large sections of the maritime press without comment- saying that a ‘frightening new study’ showed that terrorists could spoof GPS signals to ‘hijack ships’, run them aground and ‘shut down ports’- and presumably do other mentionable things with these guided missiles. All this, with navigators aboard the target vessel absolutely unaware of what was happening. 

“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,” Fox tells us.
“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. 

Now spoofing of GPS signals is not a new development; I had written about it myself last year, pointing to the potential threat of spoofing- creating fake GPS signals that change user perceptions of time or location, essentially feeding false coordinates to a GPS. Of course the potential for mischief is tremendous, especially with the newer ECDIS systems and what I see as a modern navigator’s dangerous overreliance on electronics and simultaneous disregard for common sense. But spoofing is a far cry from taking control of a ship without its navigator’s knowledge. 

So I was not impressed that Humphreys and his gang were able to spoof the yacht’s GPS and steer the yacht off course with the GPS showing, all the while, that the vessel was on her intended course. 

And I was certainly not impressed with the yacht’s Capt. Andrew Schofield, who was gobsmacked by it all. “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.

Spoofing GPS signals is not enough; to control vessels, one must be able to take over- on ships steering on autopilot- electronic navigation systems, provided they are set to control the autopilot (If they are not, you can’t do it). Large alterations of course- open sea or not- will be easily noticed by the navigator; forget the changing positions of the sun or the stars, most will notice even the change in vibration as the rudder is applied.

I admit it may be theoretically possible to make regular small alterations of course and slide a ship on a parallel course without triggering the off-course alarm or otherwise alerting the navigator- the end result similar to a ship that has drifted far from her intended position in strong wind or current even as she maintains her intended course. Given that hardly anybody uses the sextant any longer to confirm GPS positions, this may work in the open sea. 

But, unless the navigator is sufficiently substandard, such a surreptitious attempt to take over or terrorise a ship will never work close to land, if the horizon includes a single visible rock, or with other ships around. Only the most useless navigator will fail to notice- visually or on radar- the changes in relative bearings that he sees as a ship turns. A navigator relying completely on instruments like the ECDIS or the GPS and disregarding what the radar or his senses are telling him is not worth the salt he tastes on his lips. Only a substandard navigator will fail to confirm electronic positions with visual bearings or radar positions, parallel indexing and the like. Corollary: only a substandard mariner will be gobsmacked if his ship’s steering system is taken over without his knowledge.  

In any case, I wonder how many terrorists will be inclined to take all that trouble to take over a ship - including, presumably, taking the trouble to install clandestinely hacking equipment aboard the target vessel- if the eventual ‘hijack’ can be so easily detected or can be successful only in the open sea, miles from anywhere. And if a hijack attempt can be checkmated by just one navigator using two fingers to switch the system from autopilot to manual steering. 

A terrorist, like the University of Texas, should not hope for substandard navigators to make a point.

Meanwhile, Humphreys berates the US Department of Homeland Security for not taking him and his GPS terrorism threats seriously enough. Methinks the University of Texas wants a few million dollars from the US Government to ‘study’ the highly overstated GPS terrorist threat problem. Old story, this: first cry overrated wolf and then rake in the moolah studying the animal to death. 



Reid Sprague said...

Excellent post, Manu!

I used this story in a safety meeting to emphasize the importance of multiple positioning sources - I have seen a tendency (for years) in the younger mariners to just "watch the box" and neglect more active navigational measures. We run tugs, so everything is more informal and these abuses seem to creep in more easily.

So I agree with your analysis of the real danger, but I did use the shock factor in the original story to wake them up a bit!

manu said...



I suppose you could also use this one....(tongue in cheek now!)