When most people hear the word spoof, they think of a light-hearted prank or harmless deception. Not so with GPS spoofing. Spoofing is a relatively new concept in the world of GPS tracking, but it carries potentially lethal consequences. GPS tracking is the brains behind unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. Also known as drones, UAVs operate by referencing a series of pre-programmed GPS coordinates that guide the plane to its intended destination.
GPS spoofing technology essentially hijacks the receiving device, allowing a person to override the pre-programmed data with new data, sending the plane to a new destination. Professor Todd Humphreys of Radionavigation Laboratory says that the new technology carries chilling potential, especially in light of a new proposal to allow the government and commercial entities to use drones in open U.S. airspace by 2015.
The United States currently uses drones for military operations. Unlike the proposed commercial UAVs, military drones use an encrypted GPS system that makes it harder for hijackers to interfere with flight plans. Without that encryption, U.S. airspace could soon be filled with unmanned planes relying on civilian GPS technology, making it a simple matter to wreak havoc in the skies.
Previously, the greatest concern regarding widespread UAV use has been GPS jamming, which interferes with the signal. Hijackers could bring a plane down with a jammer, but they couldn’t override its programming in order to send it somewhere else. Until now.
Humphreys says that commercial drones in open U.S. airspace would be attractive targets for terrorists. Each unpiloted UAV in the skies could become a potential missile, and with GPS spoofing technology costing only $1,000 to build, just about anyone could take over a drone and send it careening into buildings or other planes.
In post 9-11 America, proactive measures must be taken to diminish and alleviate potential terrorist threats. Professor Humphreys believes that non-military UAVs present just such a threat by giving spoofers the opportunity to create thousands of missiles using unpiloted cargo planes and surveillance vehicles.
The Department of Homeland Security recognizes the danger and has implemented the Patriot Watch and Patriot Shield programs in an effort to identify and alleviate GPS-derived threats. However, the programs are short on funding and focus primarily on jammers rather than spoofers.
As GPS tracking continues to open doors to previously unimagined technological capabilities, safety measures and protections must keep pace with new developments in order to prevent disastrous consequences.