GPS Lessons from Before 9/11 Still Endanger the U.S.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta held up the report in his hand. Three years in the making, he outlined America’s over-reliance on the Global Positioning System and what should be done about it.

This was important. I wanted to read it and understand it better before it was made available to the public. So even though the report was dated August 29, 2001, it wasn’t published until September 10.

The next day, the world changed. And the report’s calls for immediate and targeted actions across the government to protect GPS and its users were put on the back burner.

2001 Volpe Study GPS Warning

“Critical infrastructure” first emerged as a federal art term in 1996 when President Bill Clinton established a commission to find out what it was and how to protect it. As part of its findings, the commission noted transportation’s growing reliance on GPS, especially in aviation, and recommended a closer look.

The result was a 113-page document from DOT’s John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center published in 2001.

Considering the current lack of protection for frequencies, vulnerable receivers, and the absence of widely available alternatives to GPS, one might be tempted to think that these problems were not known or imagined 20 years ago.

A quick glance at the Volpe report shows just the opposite.

Your assessment of system vulnerabilities, threats, and potential serious consequences could have been written today.

The problems with accidental interference and deliberate interference were well known and documented. Phishing and “dangerously misleading information” were listed as likely to be a problem. And although a direct attack on the operational control segment of the GPS and / or satellites was considered less likely, the total loss of the system was considered for one reason or another.

Almost all of the report’s recommendations also apply today almost as much as 20 years ago.

His first recommendation began: “Public policy must guarantee, above all, that security is maintained even in the event of loss of GPS.”

The report went on to discuss the need for things like risk assessment, frequency protection through regulation and interference detection, signal enhancement, receiver hardening, and the need for backup systems.

About the last time he said: “Precision positioning and timing backups are required for all GPS applications that involve the potential for life-threatening situations or significant economic or environmental impacts.”

Through the lens of September 11

After the September 11 attacks, the government’s response to the Volpe report was understandably delayed.

When it arrived in 2004, officials viewed the report both through a national security lens and with the original approach of promoting transportation safety and protecting the economy.

This was reflected in the December 2004 National Security President’s Directive (NSPD) 39 which assigned a wide variety of GPS-related functions to various federal departments and agencies. These included:

  • Good spectrum management to protect GPS frequencies.
  • Interference detection, location, attribution, along with enforcement actions to deter future events.
  • Development of a GPS alternative by the Department of Defense to be used for national security., AND
  • Acquisition of GPS backup capabilities to support “… critical transportation, homeland security, and other critical civil and commercial infrastructure…” by the Department of Transportation.

With the unclassified portion of only 13 pages and signed by the president, NSPD-39 was, for a government document, a concise set of orders to protect the nation.

It came at a time when the pain of an attack on the homeland was still palpable. And when the twin humiliations of failed intelligence and the failure to take simple anti-kidnapping precautions, such as the hardening of the cabin doors, were still deeply felt.

One would have expected swift and decisive action to carry out the president’s orders.

20 years of inaction and regression

Yet 20 years after the first full official warnings about GPS vulnerability, the United States has yet to act.

In fact, instead of moving forward, in some areas we have regressed.

Rather than being careful to protect GPS frequencies, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has authorized operations that many believe will interfere with GPS signals.

And instead of improving its ability to detect violations and act against inhibitors and counterfeiters, the FCC has reduced staff and equipment.

Alternative GPS projects within the Department of Defense are still in the science project stage. The Government Accountability Office reports that such efforts are not supported by senior leaders and often die often.

And despite nearly a dozen studies, a law requiring the establishment of a national alternative for GPS synchronization and public promises by two administrations to create a backup system, nothing has been done. Worse still, a national alternative system used by some telecommunications and other industries was canceled in 2010 against the recommendation of nearly all government engineers and technologists.

Structured to fail

The reasons for inaction and setback on these issues over the decades are many and varied.

Responsibility for positioning, navigation and timing or (PNT) issues is divided among a variety of departments. The authority to make actual changes was reserved to officials in the Executive Office of the President who generally have neither the experience nor the time to address such issues.

GPS services have generally been reliable with no major incidents highlighting vulnerabilities. In the absence of a media-worthy event, busy bureaucrats and political leaders have not had to focus on the threat.

And when it comes to alternatives, advocacy within government and by defense contractors for GPS-related programs has been vigorous. As with any major project, efforts that appear to compete with it or reduce its priority have faced significant uphill challenges.

So instead of being pushed forward as critical to our nation’s well-being, these problems have languished and America’s capabilities atrophied.

The dangers increase

All while China, Russia, Iran and others have added satellite PNT capacity and / or improved ground systems that can work with GPS and replace it when it is not available.

They have gained enormous tactical and strategic advantages over the United States by using the last two decades to really do the things we’ve only talked about.

Some analysts have opined that GPS is the highest priority target for those who would harm America, from lone wolf hackers to hostile nations.

And many think it’s time to “hit the mark on GPS” with backup and add-on systems and restore America’s place in the world as the leader of the PNT.

Failure to do so will leave the cabin doors open for almost everyone and the nation will be vulnerable to another devastating attack.

Dana A. Goward is president of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation.

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