* Jamming of GPS now poses real danger-experts
* Tests show serious impact on ships in English Channel
* GPS "spoofing" could pose serious risk to markets
By Michael Holden
LONDON, Feb 22 Satelite navigation systems
are at risk from criminals, terrorists or even just bored
teenagers, with the potential to cause major incidents from
maritime disasters to chaos in financial markets, leading
experts warned on Wednesday.
From maps on car dashboards and mobile phones, to road
tolls, aviation and marine navigation systems and even financial
exchanges, much of modern life relies on Global Navigation
Satelite Systems (GNSS) that use satelite signals to find a
location or keep exact time.
The familiar Global Positioning System (GPS) set up by the
U.S. government, and GLONASS, a similar Russian system, were
both built for military purposes but are now available to anyone
with a device that can receive a signal. The European Union,
China and India are setting up similar systems.
Experts are worried about havoc that could be caused if GNSS
signals were illegally jammed, said Bob Cockshott, a director at
Britain's ICT Knowledge Transfer Network - an initiative funded
by the UK's national innovation agency - which is hosting a
conference in London on Wednesday.
The problem was illustrated in 2009 when navigation systems
at Newark Airport in the United States began suffering daily
breakdowns brought about by a truck driver with just a cheap,
low-powered jammer in his vehicle going by on a nearby road.
"We have moved on from a potentially threatening situation
to a real danger that we must address now," Cockshott said.
Widely available on the internet, jammers are not illegal to
own but are illegal to use. Just how widespread they are is
unclear but research to be unveiled at the London conference
will reveal monitors at one location in Britain recorded 60
individual jamming incidents over six months.
Criminals have also embraced the technology, Cockshott said,
with cases where thieves had hijacked vans carrying high value
goods after jamming their GPS and cellphone systems.
"Certainly toughening the law to make it illegal to possess
one is certainly a step that can be taken. But before that, we
need to know just how many of them there are and how widespread
the problem is," he told Reuters.
Some devices confiscated by police possessed "monstrous"
transmission power when compared with the weak signal emitted by
satellites and that had serious implications, Cockshott said.
Researchers in 2010 issued low-level jamming from the coast
to see the effect on shipping in the English Channel, one of the
world's busiest shipping lanes.
They noted that ships veered off course without their
knowledge, gave out false readings to other vessels about their
position so risking collisions, and caused communications
systems to fail, preventing crew talking to coastguard.
Cockshott said there were now serious concerns "that we are
going to see a disaster" in the Channel within the next decade.
Nor do the jammers require great expertise to make. "You
could imagine the bored teenager, hacker personality builds one
of these things just to see what would happen," he said.
While jamming poses an immediate threat, a potentially more
serious risk is posed by "spoofing" - creating false GPS signals
to alter users perceptions of time or location.
Until recently, while theoretically possible, such
technology was not seen as viable or affordable.
However, Todd Humphreys, a specialist in GPS technology from
the University of Texas, told Reuters he had developed the first
GPS civilian spoofer, a "very powerful" device which cost under
$1,000 to assemble.
He said spoofers could be attractive to anyone who could
make money from fooling GPS systems, from fishermen wanting to
work in forbidden waters, motorists dodging road charges to
those wanting to cheat the world's financial trading markets.
"The financial exchanges that depend so much on their own
credibility and on people's trust of the markets could be
damaged fairly significantly by routine manipulation of the time
stamps that they apply to all of their transactions," he said.
"That could cause turmoil in the markets and people to pull
out of the market automatically because their algorithms are
designed to pull out when something looks fishy."
Unscrupulous traders could also use a time discrepancy of
just a few milliseconds to make large gains via inter-market
arbitrage. Like jammers, they could be easy to put together.
"It's not outside the capability of any other smart graduate
student in GPS or GNSS across the world," he said. "And it's not
outside the capability of any kind of sophisticated terrorist
No fully-fledged spoofing attacks have yet been reported,
although an Iranian engineer claimed to have used the technique
to down a U.S. stealth drone last December.
"It was within the realm of possibility and that was the
real story," said Humphreys who studied the engineer's report.
Whether the authorities are ready for such a threat is
unclear. A spokeswoman for London's Stock Exchange said the
exchange was unaware of such a threat and Humphreys said while
the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had conducted a risk
assessment last year, more needed to be done.
"I think the U.S. is finally taking this seriously," he said.
"But I haven't seen any serious money put down on spoofing
counter measures or even jamming counter measures in the United
(Editing by Peter Graff)