If your GPS receiver is being jammed, there’s a pretty good chance you are going to know that you don’t have a signal you can trust.

If it is being spoofed… not so much.

Sure, if the spoofer is unsophisticated enough to make your receiver believe it’s in China and you know you are somewhere in New York, then it’s bad, but not really bad.

But what about if the spoofer tells you that you are two blocks over from where you really are? Or you are in safe, deep water and you are really approaching the rocks? Or it makes your airliner tell the FAA that it is a mile away and on a parallel course from another aircraft, when a collision between the two is only minutes away?

Then it’s really bad.

“Really bad” got a lot closer for all of us last week when a Chinese technologist at the “Defcon” security conference explained how anyone can use a $300 software defined radio to spoof GPS.

This lowers the barrier to entry for thieves of high value products (see FBI and CBP  alerts), terrorists, and individual mischief makers. This increases the likelihood of future disruptions to service by illegal use of such devices.

More importantly, it calls into question the integrity of the system, even when it is operating properly. Users will be asking themselves “It looks like it’s working, but can I trust it?” This:

  • Threatens the products of Garmin, Trimble and every other receiver manufacturer.
  • Undermines the business models of Uber, Lyft, FedEx, UPS and every transportation company that relies on undisrupted GPS signals.
  • Imperils cell phone services that rely on GPS for wireless synchronized precise time to enable towers to talk to each other.
  • And so on…

It also calls for strong and decisive action by both industry and government to, in the words of the father of GPS, Dr. Brad Parkinson, “Protect, Toughen and Augment” our nation’s GPS services. Click here for a list of needed actions.

The real question is whether we will see action now, or whether we will have to wait for “Really Bad” to happen.

Let’s hope they act now.

Photo Credit: Forbes.com Tech