The GPS has become essential for millions of people worldwide, but it is not infallible, nor is it always safe: what are the threats and security risks. Satellites orbit the Earth, and increasingly sophisticated sensors are installed in cars, smartphones, PCs, smartwatches and many other electronic devices. GPS has become one of the most used technologies globally for various purposes: from transport and autonomous driving to marketing that geolocates people and directs them to the nearest physical stores.
Every day hundreds of millions of users rely on GPS, which is so used that it is perceived as infallible and safe. But the reality is different: GPS signals can be obscured and manipulated using techniques such as jamming or spoofing, with results that can be dangerous. Think of the malfunction of the GPS signals of an aeroplane in flight with poor visibility or of a self-driving car that circulates in a city: if the signal is inaccurate, they could miscalculate the route and, in the best of cases, make us lose precious time. Here’s what you need to know about the GPS and what the main security threats are.
How The GPS Works
The GPS, or Global Positioning System, comprises an organization of satellites that circle the Earth and convey messages to the collectors present on the ground. This framework includes three different instruments, which should work by one another:
- space segment, comprising of a star grouping of satellites that are organized on a circle at the stature of around 20,000 kilometres from the Earth’s surface and leaned by 55 ° concerning the equator, where every one of the satellites passes at a similar point at regular intervals;
- control segment, comprising five focuses situated on the ground close to the equator throughout the planet that screen the circles of satellites and check for blunders in approaching signs.
- The segment of use, for example, all GPS collectors present in the world, including vehicles, cell phones, satellite guides, smartwatches, and all electronic gadgets outfitted with them.
The leading worldwide situating framework for satellite routes is GNSS. Different GPS frameworks depend on various satellite organizations, like Galileo in the European Union and Glonass in Russia.
GPS: How Widespread Is It
The GPS was born as a military technology in the seventies, but satellite navigation also began to have civil use starting from the nineties. Today it is integrated into every aspect of our daily life. On a small scale, people use it every day, with the navigator in the car to get to the workplace or with the smartwatch to monitor workouts and movements.
On a large scale, it is used in the transport sector, mainly by ship, and above all in air travel, up to the registration of banking transactions in the finance sector. But also in marketing, to help people find the closest store of a particular brand. Today’s society is therefore almost dependent on GPS, and any vulnerability in the system poses a severe threat to the world in which we live.
GPS: Security Threats
Even if the GPS is considered safe, the threats that risk making it unusable are different and must be considered. First of all, satellites that are orbiting in space can be exposed to collisions with space debris, damaging it to the point of compromising the entire system. Another risk in the area concerns solar storms, which, by emitting peaks of electromagnetic radiation, can cause damage to the circuits on board, even putting the satellite out of use. Or, still, in space, the satellites could be the object of deliberate attack through military weapons.
Even on the ground, threats to the GPS are not lacking. They are mainly represented by military devices that can disturb the signals, prevent receiving them, and by hacker attacks. In jamming attacks, the GPS signal is disturbed by other signs that act as background noise. This implies that devices equipped with receivers cannot receive the satellite signal, so they will not determine the correct position.
The spoofing attacks instead are more sophisticated: a false GPS signal is sent to the ground in an attempt to deceive the receivers, so that will mark the location and the wrong time. This type of attack consists of the actual manipulation of GPS surveys. It mainly affects civil technology: most of the most common GPS receivers are not equipped with the necessary technology to verify the authenticity of the communication by simply relying on the strongest signal, which can be received. Finally, there are the Replay attacks, similar to spoofing ones, where, however, the signal is taken from several natural satellites in different locations.
It is retransmitted to the receivers, altering the position with signs that are however somehow verified. Governments have long been wondering how to make the GPS safer and limit the damage caused by such threats. The risks of damage in space, both by space debris and by solar storms, are difficult to predict and rarely repairable, but, fortunately, they also represent the most remote hypothesis of damage to the GPS. Attacks from the ground, on the other hand, worry much more.
What can be done is to use GPS backup systems, with alternative technologies activated to replace the satellite network in a technical problem or attack. As for hacker attacks, we intervene using particular firewalls that allow you to protect the system from the main threats, but, as always happens when it comes to electronic security, it is a continuous run-up between “guards” (protection systems) and “thieves” (counterfeiting systems).