GPS Jammers Could Spell Trouble In The UK
February 22, 2012

GPS Jammers Could Spell Trouble In The UK

New groundbreaking research has revealed that Global Positioning System (GPS) jammers in use on British roads are potentially a major threat to tracking systems and mobile networks.

The evidence was presented at the GNSS Vulnerability 2012: Present Danger, Future Threats conference today along with predictions of a major incident involving ships in the English Channel over the next decade caused by disruption to navigation signals. The conference was organized by the ICT Knowledge Transfer Network and was being held at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, England.

GPS jammers are most often used by people driving vehicles fitted with tracking devices in order to block those systems from tracking their whereabouts.

The Sentinel research project using 20 roadside monitors recorded more than 60 GPS jamming incidents in six months in just one area of the study. The sensors recorded every time a vehicle with a jammer passed by. The researchers believe this is the first study of its kind in the UK.

“We think it´s the only system of its kind in the world,” Bob Cockshott of the ICT Knowledge Transfer Network and head organizer of the conference told the BBC.

“Today´s evidence from roadside monitoring shows that we have moved on from a potentially threatening situation to a real danger that we must address now. With the reliance on GPS systems in the maritime environment, highlighted by the General Lighthouse Authority, our vulnerability on land and at sea should not be underestimated,” he said. “As well as immediate concerns, this conference has laid out the next generation of threats, in the form of spoofing and time sabotage — deliberately misleading users for criminal purposes rather than simply denying service. We must ensure that alongside dealing with the threat posed by jamming, we also stay ahead of advances in the criminal world.”

The next step is to update the monitoring equipment to be able to differentiate between different jammers, allowing researchers to get a number on how many individuals at a particular location are jamming GPS signals.

The project is headed by Chronos Technology, whose founder Charles Curry presented its findings.

“SENTINEL was set up to tackle the threat of GPS Jamming in three stages - identification, detection and mitigation. Whilst the identification of the threat is well established, and through roadside monitoring we are making great strides in the detection and location of these devices, the final stage, mitigation, is still some way off depending on the application and industry sector. The question for the authorities is what we are going to do once the owners of these jammers are identified and how can we prevent others using them,” he told BBC News.

“We believe there´s between 50 and 450 occurrences in the UK every day,” he said, adding that evidence from the project suggested that most jammers were small portable devices with an area of effect of between 650 and 1,000 feet.

The project received $2.3 million in funding from the Technology Strategy Board and involved a number of partners including the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).

Curry said the research had also resulted in the detection and confiscation of one jammer by police. “We detected a pattern and they [the police] were able to go and sit and wait,” he said.

He also noted the research was able to determine that hammers were responsible for interference in Ordinance Survey equipment.

Cockshott said the Sentinel project now needs to work towards developing systems that will help catch people using jammers. “The next step is to develop the system further so that it can be used for enforcement, so that you can detect a jammer in use and then relate it to the driver that's using it,” he told BBC News.

The Sentinel project results will coincide with the presentation from the General Lighthouse Authorities highlighting how overly dependent ships are on GPS. Researchers conducted a small study in 2010 using GPS jammers along the coast to see how they impacted ships coming in and out of port.

“Whilst we expected some disturbance to the ship's chart display, this research revealed four or five other systems, all reliant on GPS which failed,” said Consultant and Location and Timing system expert, Professor David Last.

“The spread of the jamming technology used in these trials, with devices available online for only £50 (US$80), makes a major incident at sea, whether accidental or intentional, a real danger. In the English Channel, the world´s busiest seaway, I personally believe we will see such an incident in the next decade,” he said.

“A GPS satellite emits no more power than a car headlight, and with that it has to illuminate half the Earth´s surface,” Last, a past president of the Royal Institute of Navigation, told the BBC. “A very, very low power jammer that broadcasts on the same radio frequency as the GPS will drown it out.”

Jamming technology can also cause headaches for other safety-critical systems using GPS.

In mobile phone and power networks GPS satellite signals are sometimes used as a source of accurate timing information. GPS is even used to provide accurate time information for some computerized transactions in financial markets. And other GPS navigation devices used by ships and light aircraft could also be affected by jammers.

A 2009 GPS issue at a Newark airport in the US was eventually traced to a truck driver using a GPS jammer.

Cockshott said that domestic jammers were typically used by drivers with company cars or vans that did not want their employers to know their whereabouts, but that organized crime used them as well to stop tracking by rivals and the police.

Speakers at the conference also plan to tackle another major threat to GPS systems: Spoofing. Spoofing generates false GPS signals to alter user´s perceptions of time and location. With the right technology it can be done without the victim ever knowing and it is virtually untraceable.

Todd Humpheys from the University of Texas owns the world´s most powerful civil GPS spoofers. He reported on tests carried out by his team on GPS-based timing devices used in mobile phone transmitters in the US. Such attacks are capable of breaking up the network, preventing towers from transmitting calls.

“So far no credible high profile attack has been recorded but we are seeing evidence of basic spoofing, likely carried out by rogue individuals or small groups,” said Humphreys. “Whilst the leap to more advanced, untraceable spoofing is large, so are the rewards. It's therefore guaranteed that criminals are looking at this. All it takes is one person to put one together and publish it online and we have a major problem.”

At the conference, Humphreys will warn that criminals could throw off the GPS timing systems that time-stamp financial trades, a process known as “Time Sabotage.” Even a few milliseconds discrepancy could create confusion and enable unscrupulous traders to leverage their knowledge of the timing discrepancy for financial gain via inter-market arbitrage.

Last warned that current legal penalties for GPS offenses are “completely inappropriate,” and said new legislation was needed to deal with the problem. He said that current telecoms services relied on GPS for critical timing information, and disrupting them could cause widespread chaos.


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