As a pilot of both aircraft and cars, GPS technology has become a vital part of my everyday life, whether I realize it or not. We naturally use our smartphones like treasure maps, leading us to our destinations in unknown places. Unfortunately, there are many instances of people trusting their digital treasure map to the point of mortal danger. Regrettably, there are a shocking number of people who have followed their GPS off a cliff, into the desert or some other form of imminent danger. Many people shake their heads at such instances of blind faith but there are far more than anyone cares to admit.
However, in 2017 GPS accounts for so much more than just getting from point A to point B. Now GPS is a vital component in agriculture, military, and many new, exciting technologies. It wasn’t until recently that GPS was certified for landing in IMC. Take the new driverless cars, which are in the news daily. They rely on GPS to, you know, drive. Clearly, GPS will continue to be a staple of our time, or will it? In the past few weeks there have been a number of stories that throw into question the reliability of GPS.
In Russia, the United States Navy may have encountered the first signs of GPS hacking. The article details a Navy Captain noticing their state of the art navigation system had them in the wrong location. After investigating his report, the Navy found at least 20 other ships were affected, their GPS placing all of their locations at the same airport. Some may discount said accounts as a glitch, that is, until one does the research.
Todd Humphreys, associated professor at the University of Austin, saw this coming as early as 2013. He conducted field tests in the Mediterranean Sea and wrote a paper detailing how GPS could be hoodwinked. It turns out GPS isn’t as foolproof as we once thought. In fact, it’s getting easier to “spoof” or confuse global satellite positioning. The first proof of such spoofing was found in Moscow, as people playing Pokemon Go found out when their phones told them they were at the Vnukovo Airport. It was theorized that it was the work of the Kremlin, protecting themselves from GPS guided weaponry.
Now, such spoofing can be found far from Russia and military officials are concerned that such trickery has become commonplace. If that’s true, it calls into question the safety of many GPS implementations, such as driverless cars and amazon drone deliveries. However, the recent spate of accidents involving US Navy warships gives us a glimpse of a potentially larger issue.
Our oceans are pathways for essentially the delivery of everything. If hackers are able to render cargo ships blind, it could potentially cause a global wide disruption. Author Greg Milner posed a chilling possibility on a interview with Public Radio International based on his own research, “There hasn’t been a large-scale spoofing attack yet, but that’s probably inevitable. It’s coming.”
The U.S government is so concerned about such a hacking that they have green lighted a number of projects to find a backup for GPS. The Navy is pushing for a Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT). Previously defunct forms of navigation, like the LORAN-C which uses radio waves, have been revitalized in response to potential concerns over GPS.
The fact of the matter is hackers have just begun their infiltration into the various digital systems on which we rely so heavily. Moving forward, reliable digital security is only going to become more crucial. It would behoove everyone to look into the soundness of their own cyber security.