said it all: “GPS at risk from terrorists, rogue nations, and $50 jammers.”
GPS vulnerabilities have become a major story in the United Kingdom. Last week’s release of findings from the so-called Sentinel project -- documenting instances of GPS manipulation -- launched a parade of experts warning about the ease with which GPS devices can be jammed, tricked, and otherwise deceived.
Trucking can be disrupted. Maybe stock markets can be fleeced, and just think about a war where GPS-directed missiles flew exactly nowhere. Apparently, at the heart of all this potential mayhem is a humble jammer that can be easily purchased on the Internet at sites like this one. (No endorsement implied, but I have to like the name: The Jammer Store.)
Drumbeats are getting louder that we are on the cusp of a global meltdown caused by criminal interference with GPS signals. Is this Y2K-type hysteria?
Not so fast. Though the impulse is to shrug this off as yet another Luddite nervefest, there may be something here.
Cycle back to 2009, when technicians at Newark Liberty Airport near New York, one of the country’s busiest airports, recognized that satellite positioning systems were suffering repeated breaks in reception. The Federal Aviation Administration launched an investigation. Two months later, the disruptions were traced to a trucker whose route frequently put him on the New Jersey Turnpike very near the airport.
He apparently had a low-cost GPS jammer in his truck. He had no intent of disturbing a major air corridor, but that is exactly what happened. Truckers use jammers to prevent their home office from tracking them, just as some rental car customers try to keep themselves invisible to prying eyes. Harmless stuff -- irrelevant to you or me.
But then the stakes get bigger when airport satellites go awry or, as happened in a 2010 test in the English Channel, ship GPS devices are disrupted by low-level jammers aimed at them from the coast. Some vessels in that test went off course. Others misreported positions, which could lead to collisions with other ships.
From there, the scenarios become obvious and obviously worrisome. A tech-savvy crook who wants to hijack a truck loaded with valuable cargo could simply disrupt the GPS -- taking the vehicle off network -- or, more frighteningly, simulate a GPS signal, throwing out a false trail. Spoofed GPS signals can be created for around $1,000, according to the research presented in the UK last week.
Even more worrisome scenarios include wholesale collisions in shipping channels, or airplanes crashing into one another as GPS manipulation puts them on a fatal course.
It could happen.
“If you’re a rogue nation, or a terrorist network and you’d like to cause some large-scale damage -- perhaps not an explosion but more an economic attack against the United States -- this is the kind of area that you might see as a soft spot,” Todd Humphreys, a University of Texas professor, told Fox News.
Here is the problem: Our dependence on GPS has catapulted, but the fundamental system -- dependent on very weak signals (thus the frequent outages on smartphone GPS apps) transmitted by satellites a couple of miles in the sky -- simply is fraught with weaknesses.
The researchers warn that massive disruptions are in sight. Said Humphreys:
So far no credible high-profile attack has been recorded, but we are seeing evidence of basic spoofing... Whilst the leap to more advanced, untraceable spoofing is large, so are the rewards. It’s therefore guaranteed that criminals are looking at this. All it takes is one person to put one together and publish it online and we have a major problem.
We are not there yet, but maybe we are getting nearer. And the researchers say not much is being done to harden the defenses against GPS interruptions. And that is the worry.
"Our modern society is almost completely reliant on GPS,"
Humphreys said at a conference last week. "It could be deadly."
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— Robert McGarvey has been online and writing about the Internet for nearly 25 years.