DHS Believes Our Reliance on GPS ‘Poses a Risk to National Security’

A 2013 report, newly unearthed under access to information laws, shows how GPS is vulnerable to disruption.
December 15, 2020, 6:09pm
DHS Believes Our Reliance on GPS ‘Poses a Risk to National Security’
Image: Bloomberg/contributor via Getty 

America runs on GPS. A system of satellites in the sky, invented by the government and maintained by the U.S. military, help Americans navigate the planet. But it’s not the only satellite based tracking software on the planet and it’s also shockingly vulnerable. That’s the conclusion of a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report from 2013 that was recently unearthed via a Freedom of Information Act Request and posted on Government Attic.

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“In the short term, the risk to the nation is assessed to be manageable,” DHS said in its report. “However, if not addressed,this threat poses increasing risk to U.S. national, homeland, and economic security over the long term.”

That may sound like a reach, but GPS is so integrated into our lives that we often don’t think about it. Many of the apps on your phone use GPS, for example. Whether it’s Google Maps helping you navigate a city or Facebook feeding you advertisements based on your surroundings, the global position system is an integral part of our lives and our economy.

More concerning for national security is the fact that America’s infrastructure runs on GPS. Ships use it to navigate treacherous waters, emergency services use it to cross a busy city as efficiently as possible, and utility companies use it to make sure they don’t dig into gas lines. American society has come to rely on the technology since its early adoption at the turn of the century. 

“Often, these critical dependencies do not become apparent until a GPS disruption occurs,” the report said.

To game out the possible consequences of a disruption, the DHS focused on four critical parts of American infrastructure: communications, emergency services, energy, and transportation systems. The report also detailed all the ways in which American financial systems and the power grid are interlinked with GPS reliant systems. It looked at common disruption scenarios, rated how often they may occur, and studied what the economic and health impacts of such disruption may be. 

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The DHS assessment of the vulnerability of GPS is dire. Basically, GPS is too interconnected with too many services and it’s easy to disrupt. The right spoofed signal or jamming attack could disrupt communications and emergency services at a critical time during a disaster and lead to more death and violence. 

“The increasing convergence of critical infrastructure dependency on GPS services with the likelihood that threat actors will exploit their awareness of that dependency presents a growing risk to the United States," the report states.

The report also included historic examples that drove home just how vulnerable GPS is.

In 2001, for example, the GPS systems of research ships were jammed in Northern California’s Moss Landing Harbor. The jamming was so persistent that it blocked GPS signals a mile out to sea and one ship had to navigate to harbor in heavy fog using radar systems. The culprit was two VHF/UHF television antennas. Even when the TVs weren’t powered up, the antennas put out enough of a signal to jam GPS in the area.

Accidents happen and odd interference from nearby radio equipment or odd weather events is a frequent cause of GPS disruption, but America’s military rivals are increasingly perfecting the art of jamming the system. North Korea in particular, makes a show of jamming GPS signals in South Korea every few years. According to the report, North Korea began targeted GPS jamming of targets in South Korea in 2010. 

The problem has only gotten worse in recent years. “The GPS jamming by DPRK (North Korea) is an act of provocation that poses a threat to the security of the Republic of Korea and undermines the safety of civil transportation, including aircraft and vessels,” South Korean U.N. Ambassador Oh Joon said in a letter to the U.N. after a month-long North Korean GPS jamming campaign in 2016. In 2007, the Navy accidently disrupted GPS signals for hundreds of people during a training exercise. In 2013, a man used an illegal device to jam the GPS signals at the Newark International Airport

“As a national asset, GPS is expected to be available for the foreseeable future,” the report concluded. The U.S. military is working on tech that blocks attacks as well as alternative systems that are less vulnerable, but the mass adoption and ubiquity of GPS will leave various parts of American infrastructure vulnerable ...for the foreseeable future.”