Britain’s GPS Reliance Could Lead To ‘Loss Of Life’

Brits are “dangerously over-reliant” on satellite navigation systems, according to the Royal Academy of Engineering

People in the UK have become overly reliant on satellite navigation systems such as GPS, making the technology a prime target for criminals intent on disrupting the country’s infrastructure.

The European Commission estimates that an €800 billion (£690bn) segment of the European economy is currently dependent on global navigation satellite systems (GNSS). A report released today by the Royal Academy of Engineering warns that the range of applications using GNSS is now so broad that signal failure or interference could affect safety systems and other critical parts of the economy.

“GPS and other GNSS are so useful and so cheap to build into equipment that we have become almost blindly reliant on the data they give us,” said Dr Martyn Thomas, chairman of the Academy’s GNSS working group. “A significant failure of GPS could cause lots of services to fail at the same time, including many that are thought to be completely independent of each other.”

Signal jamming

Criminals can reportedly use cheap signal jamming equipment to interfere with the signals used by GNSS systems, allowing them to block vehicle tracking devices or avoid road user charging. Circuits and assembly instructions for GPS jammers are widely available on the internet, and commercial jammers can be bough for less than £20.

Those wishing to deliberately interfere with GNSS signals can also rebroadcast or spoof GNSS signals in order to misreport a position or deceive tracking devices, according to the report, entitled ‘Global Navigation Space Systems: reliance and vulnerabilities‘ (pdf). However, this would be a lot more difficult and expensive to effect.

The Academy suggests that the systems could be vulnerable to terrorist attacks, known as ‘Red Team Jamming’, which would most likely target critical infrastructure and may occur at a number of locations simultaneously. GNSS failure could even lead to loss of life, if emergency services communications are interrupted, it said.

“If cyber-criminals were to attack the UK’s satellite navigation signals there are a number of possible outcomes – the sky is literally the limit,” said David Harley, senior research fellow at ESET, commenting on the report. “I’m not even going to speculate about the potential for terrorist or even cyberwarfare attacks, but obviously they exist. It’s clearly vital for any organisation with some claim to be ‘critical infrastructure’ to avoid being caught out by a GPS SPoF (Single Point of Failure).”

GNSS-independent backup

The Academy’s report recommends that critical services include GNSS vulnerabilities in their risk register, and that GNSS-independent backup systems should be used for storing positioning, navigation and timing data. Meanwhile, jamming devices should be banned, and the government should evaluate its defences against deliberate jamming of signals.

Wireless jamming devices are already outlawed in the US, although the Senate Commerce Committee approved legislation in 2009 that allowed states to petition the Federal Communications Commission to operate the technology in correctional facilities.

Meanwhile, GPS mobile applications have recently been targeted by cyber criminals, using a Trojan that enables third parties to secretly track the location of the user. The Trojan was discovered within a variation on the classic “snake” video game for Android smartphones.

GPS data has also given rise to fears of a loss of privacy, for instance through applications such as Facebook Places, and the European Commission has warned that intelligent transport data may raise privacy concerns