“The World Economy Runs on GPS. It Needs a Backup Plan”

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The Story

“The World Economy Runs on GPS. It Needs a Backup Plan”
by Paul Tullis
Bloomberg Businessweek, July 25, 2018

The Pitch

Time Out

What happens after a failure of the satellite network that tells the stock market, air-traffic control, and drones over Afghanistan what time it is? No one knows. 

At 6:10 pm MST on Jan. 25, 2016, cell phones and computers at the National Institute of Standard and Time in Boulder, CO began simultaneously ringing, buzzing, and lighting up with alarms. The presence of a bug in the US Global Navigation Satellite System had triggered a warning, alerting engineers and technicians that something was amiss with the network of celestial clocks that tells everything from the electrical grid, air-traffic controllers, and first-responders to stop lights, stock markets, and your corner ATM what time it is. The bug was introduced during the scheduled decommissioning of one of the satellites in the US’s GPS system, which use these clocks—so precise they are calibrated by the vibrations of an atom—to give American troops in the field the location of a drone’s next target and the rest of us directions to the nearest Starbucks. About half of the satellites were suddenly off by 13.7 millionths of a second. Over the next couple of hours, some cell phone towers lost their connection, police and fire stations around the country reported errors in their comms systems, and the radio telescope that tracks asteroids in Earth’s orbit went offline. The Air Force team that pulled the plug on the GPS satellite fixed the problem in a matter of hours, and most of us didn’t notice the nano-glitch.

But nobody really knows what would have happened had the problem taken longer to fix, or had the timing error been greater. The GPS on your phone determines your location with the interval between signals from different satellites that ping it, and, realizing that these time signatures are an exact measurement of the passage of milliseconds and available almost anywhere on the Earth, transportation, banking, and other systems, as well as the US military, now rely on the precision of the GPS satellites’ atomic clocks in order to function. The complexity of this network, completely unforeseen when the Air Force opened GPS to the public in 2000, makes the ramifications of the failure of one or more of the satellites impossible to predict. But it’s assumed it would be bad, and it’s known that our GPS satellites are vulnerable. “We are in a more dangerous security environment than we have seen in generations” when it comes to space, Air Force Major General John Pletcher said in February. In May, DNI Dan Coates told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that the threat of electronic warfare against our space systems is growing. China demonstrated its ability to down a satellite with a missile in 2007, and North Korea, Iran, and Russia are all known to have potential satellite-busting technology in their cyber- or space-arsenals. Russia, China, and Europe all have backup systems in place should someone take down their own GPS networks, but the US has none. The best we’ve managed is a system, proposed during the GW Bush administration, that would deploy WWII-era technology. It still hasn’t been funded.

Tasked with detecting an attack on GPS and other satellite communications systems, whether they be alerting us of incoming missiles or transmitting episodes of “Big Mouth,” are the men and women of the 57th Adversary Tactics Group, 926th Operations Group of the US Air Force, working out of Schriever AFB east of Colorado Springs, home of the National Space Defense Center.

They also train soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines across the US military to function without satellites, including GPS. Regularly throughout the year, the “Space Aggressors,” as they are known, mimic an attack on GPS and its clocks by a foreign or non-state adversary–the same openness that allows commercial interests to use the satellites makes them particularly hackable–while other military units, working 800 miles away at Nellis AFB in Nevada, try to adapt. When the Space Aggressors lose, national security wins. All it takes to confuse a GPS satellite is another satellite getting too close to it, whether intentionally, by accident, or accidentally-on purpose. And while we have protocols and international agreements in place for when a Russian fighter jet flies too close to an American one over Syria, or a US Navy vessel runs aground in Chinese waters, there’s no rulebook for what to do, or even how to tell, when an action that harms a US GPS satellite is hostile. It’s uncharted waters viewed by many experts as the potential spark of an international incident, a Cuban Missile Crisis for the cyber era—particularly worrisome without a cool customer and experienced hands at the top of our decision chain.

In June, a new lieutenant colonel takes command of the Space Aggressors. It’ll be a perfect opportunity to witness and relate what happens in one of these cyber/space war games–and how well our military performs–as a narrative vehicle to get at the danger posed by an attack on, or failure of, our critical but vulnerable GPS network. I live 10 minutes from NIST and 2 hours from Schriever. I could also find out what the banking, transport, and telecoms industries or financial systems are doing to prepare.

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