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Is GPS Vulnerable to Attack and Misdirection? Top 10 Issues

written by: Daniel P. McGoldrick•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 1/24/2011

Reliance on GPS technology by both the military community and the civilian population is at an all-time high. But is this trend somewhat of an unstable crutch? Here, we’ll take a look at 10 GPS vulnerabilities that could pose a threat to both the satellites and the receiver units down here on Earth.

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    A Lost World? 5 Reasons to Not Forget How to Navigate Using the Stars We Didn’t Put Up There

    GPS Orbits Let’s take a look at 10 GPS vulnerabilities that are feasible risks to the Global Positioning Systems technology we’ve come to rely on for so many navigational purposes for both civilians and the military. Aside from the countless citizens who rely on GPS for navigation, corporations, and government agencies on all levels use it for purposes as widespread as emergency response to tracking the money we trust our banks with. From mishaps to malefactors, GPS technology is vulnerable on many different levels simply because it works on so many levels. Satellites in space, ground stations, and the receiver devices that come in a myriad of different designs for a variety of different purposes have to be coordinated with precision for the system to work effectively. We’ll start with what could cause trouble on the ground then move right on out into the navigational mayhem that could result from any number of mishaps the GPS satellites are susceptible to. But since spoofing and jamming account for half of these potential vulnerabilities, we decided to dedicate the second article in this series entirely to various issues that fall under that category. So read this engaging and easy to understand two-part series to get a full understanding of all ten. It will be both worthwhile and intriguing to learn what the threats to our coveted GPS technology are along with a bit about what our government is planning to do to safeguard and improve our global positioning systems infrastructure.

    Image courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org

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    Technical Aspects of GPS Receivers are Readily Available

    With the specifications and technical aspects of GPS technology (especially receivers) readily available on the internet with each improvement and update that is made to them, saboteurs and malefactors can easily see how they are designed. Armed with knowledge, they can then go to work on how to disable them with many of the methods we’ll later discuss. A quick internet search can lead anyone interested into learning how it all works, from the low signal (which is a major root problem discussed in the second article in this series) transmitted down from the satellites themselves to the circuitry in a handheld GPS. Just like computer hackers and their viruses, adversaries and attackers are always looking for new ways to harm and misdirect GPS as well. They look for the weaknesses and exploit them.

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    Satellite Breakdown

    Just like a light bulb, those multi-million dollar contraptions out in space are not going to last forever, which could leave navigators on the globe in the directional dark. Many have already been up there for a while but as long as new ones are sent up there (which is the case by several countries other than just the U.S.) coverage should remain continuous. Whether all those satellites will be compatible to existing receivers on the ground is another matter. Space Shuttle crews can potentially be sent to fix them and so long as there is funding available, the priority will be to keep them in good working order. A look at GPS Satellite Deterioration will delve more deeply into this issue if you’re interested.

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    Satellite Destruction by Natural Occurrences in Space and by Human Intent

    GPS satellites are vulnerable to being destroyed by meteors and such that careen through space that would easily take out a satellite completely. Easily in the sense that the timing would have to be absolutely perfect and the probability of such a collision is akin to you finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. But, conceivably, if there was a rash outbreak of rainbows, the end of one of them is eventually going to land on gold somewhere. And natural occurrences such as solar flares and ionospheric scintillation can also interfere, impede, or destroy the effectiveness of the GPS satellites in orbit. But if we got a big enough solar flare, our questions about where we are going would be far more urgent and metaphysical, and hopefully most of our souls would have a nice answer.

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    Continuing on with the top 10 GPS vulnerabilities, on this page covering 3,4, and 5 which are the satellites falling prey to destruction from natural occurrences in space or by nation's looking to destroy them for military purposes. Then we'll point out privacy issues and the potential for the wrong people to have the ability to track everyone's whereabouts. Next, some issues of latency and human error are discussed before moving onto the second article in the series covering 6 -10 of the 10 GPS vulnerabilities, all related to GPS jamming and GPS spoofing.
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    Satellite Destruction by Natural Occurrences in Space and by Human Intent (Continued)

    GPS Satellite In Orbit Artist's Rendering It is more likely, however, that a satellite would be intentionally destroyed as a result of the human races propensity to do harm to one another; which is not restricted to what goes on down here on Earth. GPS technology is critical to the military of the U.S. and its allies. Missiles sent to destroy satellites from countries such as North Korea or other adversaries certainly pose a valid threat to far more than the sanctity of our geocaching outings. Some of our newer GPS satellites are actually armored and navigable to prevent such an attack from being effective. Plans are in the works to safeguard them as the ability to implement new technology immerges.

    Image courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org

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    Privacy and Tracking Issues Related to GPS Technology

    Along with all those issues related to adversaries jeopardizing GPS technology, there is also the perceived threat of our own government using the tracking capabilities inherent in GPS to invade citizen's rights to privacy. They believe the government’s ability to find out where you are using GPS tracking is moving closer toward the fictionally envisioned totalitarian "Big Brother" government in Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World. The government can track cars and phones without a warrant which some find to be a violation of civil liberties. The ramifications are discussed with more depth in Ethics Violations and GPS Cell Phones. But the point of categorizing this as one of the 10 GPS vulnerabilities is that any technology, when it falls into the wrong hands, is certainly a threat to good natured, peace-loving citizens anywhere. I’m not implying this about our government, just reminding you that the last century experienced some of the worst governments that ever existed and we’d be fools to deny that history tends to repeats itself.

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    Latency and the Vulnerabilities of the Fragile Beings that Created GPS

    This is an issue of speed, whereas a GPS signal takes time to travel from outer space to wherever the particular GPS device is that is looking to lock on a signal. This is more of a problem with older models as technology has improved to get a lock quicker. However, a signal can never move faster than the speed of light, so this will always be somewhat of an issue. Although it’s only a tiny fraction of a second, that would be all it takes to cause a jet to crash. This is one of the issues discussed in The Problems with GPS.

    When mentioning misdirection here, we're not talking about a magician’s propensity to redirect your attention away from where the sleight of hand is taking place; we're referring to a GPS that sends a person on a foolhardy route. GPS devices have been known to direct motorists on routes such as high mountain passes in dangerous winter conditions, or crossing train tracks when an oncoming train would make such a crossing an extremely nonsensical undertaking. Or more to the point, what the author deems Moronic Convergence whereby the human operator listens to the commands from a GPS when common sense dictates that this advice is not a good idea at all (similar to a child’s insistence that the devil made him do something). In Luckington, England, an average of two cars a day were being pulled out of a river because drivers trusted their GPS devices more than posted signs warning that a bridge was washed out. Get that full story and more at GPS Overdependence. Now, we’ll move into elements of spoofing and jamming in the next article of this series that will round out or list of the top 10 GPS vulnerabilities.

Ten of the Top Vulnerabilities and Threats to GPS Technology

The 10 GPS vulnerabilities are divided into two articles here to cover the full scope of what is at stake or at risk in terms of global positioning systems from receivers to satellites. We'll cover GPS jamming and GPS spoofing plus 8 other intriguing and viable threats to our navigational systems.
  1. Is GPS Vulnerable to Attack and Misdirection? Top 10 Issues
  2. GPS Jamming and Spoofing: Navigational Vulnerabilities