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UT Professor Warns Congress About Drone Hacking

 

When a team of students from UT’s Radionavigation Lab successfully hacked into a drone’s GPS system back in June, lab director Todd Humphreys hoped that national security entities would take notice.

“The FAA has to deal with this out in the open,” Humphreys, a professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering, said in a June 26 Alcalde article. “They now see that this is a civilian problem, and it will have to be addressed before the launch in three years.”

Not even a month later, the U.S government recognized the implications of Humphreys’ research in a big way: by inviting him to testify before Congress about the dangers of drone hacking.

In a demo at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in June, Humphreys and his team used a relatively inexpensive GPS spoofer to hijack a drone flying high above them, causing it to change altitude—and exposing a new threat to our national security.

At last Thursday’s House Homeland Security subcommittee meeting, Humphreys told members of Congress just that.

“I am worried that it could be a weapon in the arsenal of organized crime, or state actors, or organized terrorists,” he said.

In February, Congress ordered the FAA to establish rules for government and commercial drone usage on U.S. soil by 2015—a plan that now has a gaping hole. Without encrypted systems, Humphreys says civilian drones will be vulnerable to spoofing attacks. But requiring encryption would be expensive, and budgets are tight.

Humphreys does admit that it’d be difficult for the average person to perform a successful spoofing attack, but that doesn’t mean the threat isn’t real.

“What my nightmare scenario would be is looking forward three or four years,” Humphreys testified, “where we have now adopted the UASs [unmanned aircraft systems] in the national airspace without addressing this problem.”

Todd Humphreys. Photo courtesy Cockrell School of Engineering.

 

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