A recent report by the U.K.’s Royal Academy of Engineering on the vulnerability of the GPS system, warns of our over-reliance on the GPS system. Natural events such as solar flares and “jammers” could easily hinder signals resulting in mayhem during stock trades, loss of communication on aircrafts, or public transportation system failures.
GPS technology has become a ubiquitous part of our everyday lives. We are all dependent on the GPS system whether we know it or not. Although the report pointed out weaknesses in the GPS system, most people agree the chances of a successful terrorist attack or interference with the GPS system is quite low.
According to the report’s author, Dr. Martyn Thomas, the purpose of the report on GPS system vulnerability was to highlight the “dangerous over-reliance” on satellite navigation and timing signals, which are vulnerable to disruption, either from natural events such as solar storms, or jamming. He said “when a technology such as GPS becomes so useful, so easy to use and universally available, users tend to take the technology for granted and concern themselves less with maintaining and practicing the use of alternatives.”
Professor Peter Sommer from the Information Systems and Innovation Group, London School of Economics, welcomed the report findings but stressed the GPS systemic risk was relatively low. “It is not so unimportant that we should not be doing anything about it,” he said, “but the suggestion that it is going to be easy for terrorists to cause any long term, large scale disruption is entirely fanciful.”
Although it seems a bit extreme, one British newspaper said “Cyber terrorists could cripple banks, send ships floundering on to rocks and bring death to the roads at the click of a mouse.”
The report draws attention to the fact that the Global Positioning System (GPS) and other global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) have become so woven into the fabric of modern business that they represent a single point of failure among systems that at first glance have nothing to do with each other.
One of the problems with the GPS signal is how weak it is, described by Dr. Thomas as “the equivalent of a 100W light bulb beamed from space. Think of it this way; imagine trying to see a candle in New York with a telescope in London.” The signal is, by a considerable margin, one of the weakest broadcast radio signals; it is insufficient to penetrate most buildings. This, says Dr. Thomas, means it is vulnerable to jamming either as an act of malfeasance or through accidental blocking.
The report recommends a range of actions to reduce vulnerability. They include closing the legal loophole that allows the import and possession of jamming devices. Dr. Thomas also called for alternative back up systems, particularly a system called eLORAN, which uses ground-based low frequency radio waves to provide the location information. However, according to Dr. Thomas, the system is being wound up, a move he called to be reversed.
About the GPS System
Two dozen satellites orbiting in formation constitute the Global Positioning System (GPS). Everything from the food you eat, to the clothes you wear, to the car you drive, to the way you work to the money you spend is effected by the GPS system. GPS is a huge part of the supply chain for the things that most people use and rely on everyday – agriculture, financial systems such as ATMs and the stock market, in-car navigation systems, emergency services; railway, shipping, and air transportation systems.
The basis for GPS system technology is the atomic clock. With the ability to synchronize their time to billionth of a second on each satellite, the systems know their exact position in time and space. They also keep an internal log of the exact positions of other satellites to aid receivers in location fixing.
• More than 1 billion GPS receivers are used by consumers and businesses to get around.
• ATMs and Wall Street traders use super-accurate atomic clocks on the GPS satellites to time-stamp transactions.
• GPS signals can direct “smart bombs” to within a few yards of the target. These are being used in Libya right now.
The Academy’s report, Global Navigation Space Systems: reliance and vulnerabilities is available online at www.raeng.org.uk/gnss