GPS jamming could make you a casual terrorist

One consequence of the global rise of GPS (Global Positioning System), and its inherent ability to track and record information, is that people feel their privacy is cramped, their movements recorded…

GPS technology is everywhere, but should we rely so heavily on it? 3D King/Flickr

One consequence of the global rise of GPS (Global Positioning System), and its inherent ability to track and record information, is that people feel their privacy is cramped, their movements recorded.

In turn, this creates an incentive for them to exercise the only opt-out option they have: illegal GPS jamming.

Thanks to GPS, we are now connected and informed in ways that have not been possible before. It is now used for many applications it was never meant to service, from smartphone apps to surveyors’ high-accuracy networks.

All good. But there is evidence that GPS is becoming a victim of its own outrageous success.

At a recent workshop on GPS vulnerability, hosted by the University of New South Wales’s Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER), Ed Williams, Airservices Australia’s strategic programs leader (navigation), provided a telling example of the problem.

In the US, flight trials of a GPS-based aircraft landing system were interrupted several times by a “jammer”, an illegal device designed to overpower the GPS signal in a local area.

It was later found to belong to an employee of a courier company that tracked its vehicles using GPS. So what had happened?

It transpired that the employee chose, when on personal business, to illegally jam GPS signals rather than be tracked, with the unintended consequence of denying GPS precision guidance to the aircraft landing at a nearby (and very large) airport.

So how do we protect GPS from this type of (unintentional) jamming threat? What sort of back-up systems should we have?

Indeed, how should authorities respond to this threat? And should we even be drawing attention to GPS vulnerability by discussing it openly in the first place?

In short, there are no easy answers.

A recent report by the Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK suggests that Europe is chronically over-reliant on GPS, with 6-7% of Europe’s GDP (about €800 billion) relying in some way on satellite navigation.

Australia is not immune to this phenomenon, of course.

Based on GPS tracking of heavy vehicles, Transport Certification Australia (TCA) runs an Intelligent Access Program (IAP), aimed at ensuring those vehicles are using the roads correctly.

Despatch and taxi companies track their vehicles for efficiency; security companies track their vehicles for safety.

But full-time tracking of those vehicles inevitably means tracking of their drivers, who may not want their whereabouts tracked by their employer, or anyone else for that matter.

In 2007, in the UK, more than a million people signed a petition against a proposal to calculate road tax according to road use, measured by using GPS – nominally the most equitable method – but privacy concerns were too great.

Jamming devices, illegal in Australia and elsewhere, can be obtained online by a disgruntled, privacy-minded individual.

At present we have no civilian counter-jamming systems in place, and hence are relying on a system which is too fragile to withstand a resentful public. Perhaps that public still likes the idea that you can go to the pub at lunchtime without the boss knowing.

The danger is that GPS is used for many important activities that can’t afford to be taken offline, such as synchronising communications and navigating aircraft, activities where no-one but a terrorist has an incentive for jamming.

We need to take action now to avoid an environment where preventing the boss from knowing you’ve had a pub lunch means becoming a casual terrorist.