U.S. urged to add more protection to GPS systems

WASHINGTON -- A 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 should be designated as a critical infrastructure requiring increased protection, national security and private-sector experts argue.

GPS satellites, which are used primarily for precision navigation by everyone from recreational boaters to the military, also provide critical timing support for a vast array of electronic systems, including cell phones, pagers, air traffic control, gas station pumps, precision farming equipment, stock market trading, commercial transportation and shipping systems, the electric power grid, financial network encryption and backup systems for the Internet.

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 special homeland security task force sponsored by The Heritage Foundation, a public policy think tank in Washington, is calling on the Bush administration to add GPS to the list of critical national infrastructures that require increased security.

The problem, according to a task force report issued Jan. 8, 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. Therefore, the Heritage task force has called on the Bush administration to issue a new presidential order that includes GPS. The task force was formed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and is the third such task force focusing on terrorism and homeland security.

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

"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-induced 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 "pay at the pump" gas station credit card transactions (see story).

San Diego-based Qualcomm Inc. is one wireless communications vendor that supports the step.

Qualcomm'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 is capable of pinpointing the location of wireless 911 emergency callers. 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, and 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."

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

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Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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