Cybersecurity Navigations systems are vulnerable to hackers

Published 26 January 2016

When it comes to route planning, drivers have almost blind faith in GPS. The technology plays an important role in identifying location and time in other areas, too. If hackers attack the system, they can cause great damage. Information security researches look to develop defensive measures.

Hannelore Kraft, Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia, was impressed when, in summer 2015, Junior Professor Christina Pöpper demonstrated how easily hackers can manipulate the Global Positioning System (GP) and, consequently, every other navigation satellite system as well. The visit took place during the politician’s annual summer trip, in the course of which she got an insight into the current status of IT research at the Horst Görtz Institute.

In their presentation given to the minister-president, Pöpper and her team simulated a car journey to her headquarters in Düsseldorf. Just like in real life, they entered the destination into the navigation device and started the application. Then, the surprise: even though the device did not leave the room, the position arrow started to move toward North Rhine-Westphalia’s state capital. Ruhr-Universitaet-Bochum reports that this was not caused by a software bug, but by an attack on the GPS, performed by the IT experts. They faked a trip that was not actually happening. A scenario that attackers could feasibly manufacture during a real car journey, according to Pöpper: “GPS has been in use since about 1992. Since 2002, we have been aware that it is vulnerable. In the intervening years, many countermeasures have been suggested, but as yet, no defense strategy has been developed that offers protection against all attacks. It always boils down to the question: how strong is the attacker?”

The severity of the problem is evident in the fact that even the U.S. Navy does not fully rely on GPS. In 2006, GPS-based orientation replaced celestial navigation in their curricula — until recently. According to the Navy, the security and failure risk of GPS is so high that its officers are again being trained in the use of sextants. “I was surprised when I heard that. After all, we often assume that the military sector is more technologically advanced than the civil sector,” says Pöpper.

Together with her Ph.D. student Kai Jansen, the computer scientist puzzles over a solution of the problem. Getting rid of GPS is not a viable alternative. One of the system’s advantages is its outstanding versatility. Satnavs in cars, in electronic tagging devices, in aviation, and in mobile phones all deploy GPS. Because it is suitable not only for determining position, but also for synchronizing time, the system is also widely used in the industry for temporal alignment of machines and measurements.