Think Tank Calls for Better Protection of GPS Systems

Says satellites are 'critical infrastructure'


The constellation of 24 navigation satellites known as the Global Positioning System (GPS) has become a key enabling network for the nation's telecommunications grid, including the Internet. And as such, its protection is a matter of national security, argue public- and private-sector security experts.

As a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. and the increasing threats posed by hackers skilled in wireless forms of attacks and sabotage, a homeland security task force is calling on the Bush administration to add GPS to the list of critical national infrastructures that require increased security. The task force is sponsored by The Heritage Foundation, a public policy think tank in Washington.

The problem, according to a report issued by the task force earlier this month, is that the two principal presidential orders dealing with critical infrastructure protection—one signed by President Clinton in 1998 and the other by President Bush last year—don't include GPS on the list of critical systems. The task force is calling on the Bush administration to issue a new presidential order that includes it.

"The most relevant threat is jamming signals and interfering with signals," said Maj. Barry Venable, a spokesman for the Pentagon's Space Command in Colorado Springs. GPS signals, which are critical to ground-based switching operations for voice, data and video networks, are easy to jam, he said.

Positioning satellite signals can be jammed, warn some experts.
Positioning satellite signals can be

jammed, warn some experts.

Moreover, "it's possible to intercept the downlink signal, provided you had the proper interception equipment," Venable said. "In the military, we encrypt all of our data, but that is not necessarily happening in the commercial sector."

"The time-reference standard GPS can provide does govern such things as time-dependent encryption," said Bill Malick, director of risk and advisory services at KPMG LLP in Stamford, Conn. "A failure there could expose financial networks to possible failed transactions."

Satellite-related network failures have already occurred in the private sector. In May 1998, for example, PanAmSat Corp.'s Galaxy IV satellite malfunctioned, shutting down 80% of the nation's 40 million pagers as well as thousands of bank card and gas station credit card transaction systems.

San Diego-based Qualcomm Inc. supports the task force's recommendation. The wireless communications vendor's location technology is being deployed in millions of cell phones, including those offered by Kansas City, Mo.-based Sprint PCS Group as part of a nationwide Enhanced 911 system that's capable of pinpointing the location of people who place 911 emergency calls from wireless phones. The company's gpsOne Wireless Assisted GPS also supports real-time asset-tracking.

In addition to public safety applications, GPS supports a vast array of ground-based networks, including the Internet. The loss of GPS would cause a "ripple effect throughout other networks," said Jonas Neihardt, vice president of federal government affairs at Qualcomm.

"We feel unequivocally that GPS should be designated as a critical infrastructure by the Bush administration," said Neihardt. "We depend on GPS to ensure timing for other key infrastructures."

Allen Thomson, a former CIA scientist, said, "Defending our satellites is going to be a whole lot harder than people have been letting on. If I had to worry a lot about a particular satellite system, GPS would be the one."

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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