They are designed to save lives. They prevent our military leaders from putting American lives at risk. They have been used effectively in combat situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. And they are horrifyingly vulnerable.
A team at the University of Texas just punched a major hole in the U.S. military’s increasing dependence on UAVs, or Unmanned Military Vehicles. The team, comprised of University staff and students, successfully “hacked” a military drone, taking control of the machine. How did they accomplish this Mission: Impossible-esque feat? They spoofed its GPS.
What is Spoofing?
“Spoofing” is, essentially, replacing the GPS signal that a machine’s onboard GPS tracker receives. Let’s say you’ve got a UAV flying over Kosovo. A bad guy creates a false GPS, sends it at the UAV, and is therefore able to take control of that vehicle.
The University of Texas team was able to perform the spoof with efficiency and effectiveness that has sent shockwaves through the American defense infrastructure. Military GPS manufacturers are now scrambling to find ways to make those GPS signals secure and encrypted. Global positioning satellites have become absolutely fundamental to the way we make war.
One More Problem
GPS signals do have one additional vulnerability: they can be jammed, just like radar or other radio waves. However, spoofing remains an alarming weakness, especially for military GPS applications.
How Can GPS Hacking be Prevented?
So how can manufacturers secure GPS signals? The easy answer is to encrypt them from a satellite level. One other option is to amalgamate the data. With new and advanced forms of Wi-Fi on the horizon, GPS signals are increasingly bounced against existing data. In the consumer cell phone realm, data is being “crowd-sourced,” in the same way that Wikipedia receives information from users. In this manner, GPS data might become more solid, as “trustable” to a machine as the invaluable maps used in the days of pirates and Christopher Columbus.
The Value of Data, Value of Lives
The fact is that a vulnerable military GPS signal means that American lives are in danger. UAVs especially perform reconnaissance and even attack tasks that would have to be performed by living, breathing soldiers. In short, a vulnerable GPS signal means vulnerable lives. Securing GPS signals has immediately become the issue facing military GPS manufacturers worldwide.