GPS jamming: Three ways to stop it fouling up business IT

GPS satellite-tracking data is so embedded in modern tech systems that illegal attempts to disrupt it for whatever purpose must be halted.

People who use GPS jammers can take out an increasing range of technologies in a wide area of transmission. Photo: Tom Espiner/ZDNet UK

In February, clear evidence of illegal jamming of GPS signals on UK roads was revealed for the first time by the Sentinel project led by Chronos Technology.

Jamming monitors had been placed at about 20 locations in the UK. At one particular location that has been monitored continuously for the past six months, more than 60 individual jamming incidents were recorded. The results at another location have already led to the recovery of a device.

At the same time, the University of Texas warned of the growing threat from spoofing - the process of mimicking GPS signals so that receivers are fooled into receiving a false position or time.

So why is GPS jamming and spoofing a problem for business?

The issue is that although jammers might be used simply by a driver not wanting to be tracked by his or her company's telematics, this action can also take out a large area of transmission. This disruption can interfere with an increasing range of technologies that rely on satellite positioning and timing systems.

For example, everything from GPS-assisted aeroplane-landing terminals to navigation instruments in shipping can be lost near the jamming incident. GPS is now so ubiquitously embedded in our civil and business systems that any form of tampering can have a massive effect.

Perhaps most worrying for financial institutions is the idea that GPS spoofing could be used, subtly and without leaving a trace, to manipulate the timing algorithms that are so crucial to high-frequency trading.

For example, traders in London need to know that pork bellies in Chicago are on sale at a certain price. But if the time-stamping provided by GPS is slightly out of kilter due to the time sabotage of the GPS signal, millions of pounds can be won and lost in a millisecond.

Here are three recommendations to militate against GPS disruption

1. Legal change

At the moment UK law states it is illegal to operate a jammer but not illegal to own one. It would be helpful if this loophole was closed. This measure would discourage the casual user from buying a £50 ($80) jammer from the internet in the first place and help the police crackdown on those who are trading in them in the UK.

2. Remove incentives

Another important step would be to structure prospective road-user charging systems, haulage-working directives and insurance schemes so there is no benefit in using a jammer. By eliminating the benefit to the user of jamming the GPS in these situations, a lot of the incentive to use them would be removed.

3. Build in technology redundancy

My final recommendation would be to build redundancy into systems by using more than simply GPS. One example of a complementary positioning and timing system is eLoran - a powerful land-based radio system that cannot be jammed in the same way as GPS and provides GPS-quality time signals and a valuable backup to positioning technologies where it used.

By taking these three steps, we should be able to limit the effectiveness of these new threats and make our critical infrastructure and business systems more secure.