Criminals and operatives from rogue nations are using and developing ways to jam and trick Global Positioning System (GPS) devices – a network of US-operated satellites and ground command center. While much of the current activity involves thievery, the threat of a dreadful disaster or crisis – such as an airline accident or major disruption in commerce – is growing, and the U.S. is largely unprepared for this threat, despite solutions at hand.
It’s easy to take for granted how important and commonplace our nation’s GPS has become. The satellite system has improved our daily lives and become a mainstay for a host of consumer applications – from using online maps, getting directions on our smartphones phones, interacting in social media, and finding restaurants and shops.
In fact, GPS has touched so many activities that we have come to rely on – including services like Uber and Lyft, ship and airline navigation, timing data for financial markets, and the delivery and tracking of consumer goods. Importantly, GPS provides necessary and strategic capabilities for our military. We should not take for granted how important these services are to our safety, economy and national security.
What we are seeing now is mostly a problem with criminal activity that will eventually lead to a significant deterioration in the quality of your GPS signal. The problem goes far beyond speeders using jamming devices to evade radar detection on the road. As reported recently in the news, criminals of all levels of sophistication are using jamming devices to interrupt GPS signals, in order to cloak their presence to authorities, and hide the trafficking of stolen goods or smuggling illegal drugs. Jewel thieves jammed a courier’s key fob, preventing his vehicle from locking and allowing the thief to steal its valuable contents. In other instances, trucks and ships with stolen cargo were apprehended after “staying under the radar” by jamming devices. Cars, ships and planes can be steered off course by tricking the GPS signals in what is commonly referred to as spoofing. While some criminals are being caught, the prevalence of these crimes is likely much higher than realized and goes completely undetected.
Internationally, rogue nations have the capability to do much worse with our GPS network. Four years ago, North Korea allegedly jammed the GPS signals and forced 252 commercial airplanes to turn off their navigation devices. Flying without radar increases the probably of an accident, even being shot down, as was the case when Korean Airlines Flight 007 accidentally strayed into the Soviet Union’s airspace in the 1980s. North Korea jammed the GPS of fishing boats in international waters, and Iran recovered a U.S. drone aircraft by spoofing its GPS signals.
We are seeing an unprecedented number of highly sophisticated cybersecurity threats on our government, private businesses and individuals today. Hackers are targeting home-based and business computer networks, retail transaction and credit card data, government computer systems and now GPS. It’s electronic warfare and the potential for interference from other nations – Iran, China, Russia and others – or their surrogates – poses a major threat to our national defense and to our everyday lives.
Most consumers really don’t think about the satellite system itself, they just expect our apps and services to work properly. However, like a piece of two decade-old electronic equipment stored away in your attic, it is not up to par with the current state of technology, lacks capabilities and features, and it’s subject to breaking. The reality is that current GPS network is reliant on aging investment and is not hardened to withstand signal jamming and malicious attacks by hackers and enemy nations – any of which will have adverse consequences on consumer and commercial services, as well as military use.
We are not prepared for this threat, and the increasing sophistication of the attacks requires using better technology, not relying on the technology of twenty years past. The reality is that the existing GPS network was not built for the level of attacks we are now experiencing, much less the threats of the future.
This threat and a major part of its solution have been long recognized. Planned upgrades to the GPS network—GPS III satellites and GPS OCX ground system—would provide superior technical capabilities, but would require integrating critical software and investing in a new fleet of satellites to replace some aging craft. When complete, the proposed upgrades would cyber-harden the system from disruptions and hacking, and it would provide double the accuracy for military and commercial use for applications in the air and ground.
It’s hard to imagine a world without dependable GPS, but we may soon be there. While upgrades have been in the planning for years, Congress has put off the funding needed to modernize the system. If preparation is important, then Congress needs to fully support funding the continuation of GPS modernization and cybersecurity hardening. Without these upgrades, the GPS network will eventually fail, and with it all of its relevant applications for businesses and consumers.
The benefits from GPS touch our everyday lives, and you might say that our economy “travels” on it. Modernizing and hardening America’s GPS network is critical for the economy and our national defense. With all of its benefits, the cost of delaying this vital upgrade means waiting for a significant disaster or very costly crisis to happen, and then it will take years to fix. Upgrading and securing our nation’s GPS from growing cyber threats should not be in question.
This article is also available in the Huffington Post.