Published on News24: 22 December 2017
Under what circumstances would global powers limit or even revoke civilian access to their global navigation satellite systems – and how would we all cope in a world without ‘GPS’?
When last did you use a map book for directions? For many of us the answer is simple: not since the advent of the smart phone. Young children might even ask you: what is a map book?
To say that much of humanity has become dependent on America’s Global Positioning System (GPS) would be an understatement. Since achieving full operational status in 1995, the adoption of GPS across the civilian and commercial world has been exponential. It’s become such a huge part of modern every-day life that civil society would be lost without it … literally!
GPS is owned by the United States (US) Government and operated by the US Department of Defence. It constitutes a network of 33 satellites that, while orbiting the earth, transmit precise details of their positions in space. These signals are received by GPS devices on the Earth’s surface which use this information to calculate the exact location of each device.
Although first developed by the US military for its own purposes, it revolutionised countless civilian industries – especially those in transport, mining and agriculture. There has also been a significant rise in the recreational use of GPS across a range of sports and the flying of drones.
Also of interest is that GPS is not the only global navigation satellite system. Russia has an equivalent system known as ‘GLONASS’, China has ‘BEI-DOU’ and Europe has ‘GALILEO’. All are available for civilian use although America’s GPS is by far the most widely used.
Military versus civilian access to GPS
There are two different GPS signals – military and civilian. The military GPS signal is encrypted while civilian GPS is not. Up to the year 2000, civilian GPS was subject to ‘Selective Availability’ which purposely reduced the positioning accuracy of unencrypted GPS devices for national security reasons.
However, in May 2000 the US government ‘switched off’ this Selective Availability function to give worldwide civil and commercial users unrestricted access to GPS capability.
This begs the question: would the US government ever be forced to switch its Selective Availability back on, or even worse, switch off all civilian access to GPS?
Where many now view GPS as a ‘right’, it is in fact a ‘privilege’ which can be amended or revoked at any time by the US government, especially if the nefarious use thereof is deemed a serious threat to US national security.
GPS-enabled threats to US national security
An article published on Fox News earlier this year raised the alarm over US vulnerability to terrorist drone attacks. One key concern the article fails to address, however, is whether these terrorist drones will utilise civilian GPS to guide them to their targets.
If a major terrorist attack was carried out by a GPS-enabled drone equipped with an explosive payload, it’s highly likely the US government would relook at its open GPS policy.
And, it’s not just terrorist drones that present a risk … what about intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) tipped with nuclear warheads owned by so-called ‘rogue states’?
Only once in the media have I read about how North Korea might guide its ICBMs to hit targets on the US mainland. The article suggests that North Korea would use China’s BEIDOU navigation system to target US cities, but knowing Kim Jong-un’s wry sense of humour he may well savour using America’s very own civilian GPS to wipe out Washington.
Revoking civilian GPS privileges
Considering the scale of this threat, the US Department of Defence finds itself in an impossible predicament. First of all, the implications of limiting or revoking civilian GPS access would result in unprecedented global chaos.
Industries and businesses that have become so reliant on GPS would be rendered ‘blind’. Billions of people’s GPS-enabled devices would become obsolete. Not to mention that almost every form of transportation would be thrown into total disarray.
Second, the US would have to approach other nations possessing similar civilian global navigation systems and ask that they also be limited or switched-off. Should they refuse, the US could threaten to hold any nation accountable if their respective navigation system is used by a third party to carry out a terrorist attack on US soil.
And lastly, the localised jamming of GPS is only partially effective in that you must know the precise location of the threat and have the equipment available and in position to jam the GPS signal in proximity to the threat.
The future of GPS is anything but certain
Fortunately for all of us, there hasn’t been a major terrorist strike that’s highlighted the risk of GPS, but it would be naïve for us to think there won’t be one in the future. When it happens, civilian GPS privilege will be placed firmly in the spotlight.
So, for the time being, industries and businesses that rely on GPS should have a sound backup plan in place. As for us civilians, we should all appreciate the incredible convenience and benefits of GPS. But we mustn’t ever take it for granted to the extent that we forget how to live without it.
Now that you know it could happen … don’t be surprised when it does!
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