We’d bet that the average consumer does not realize the extent of the importance of GPS, beyond just the personal navigation applications.
GPS stands for the Global Positioning System. GPS is a U.S.-owned utility that provides all kinds of users with hyper-accurate timing, positioning, and navigation information.
You might think that GPS is about “positioning” especially since its right there in the title. But, GPS is less about location and more about time. Equipment, such as the iPhone you use to get around, receives location notices from these satellites. Your location is determined using the fractional time differences in when the signal arrived at your phone specifically from the satellites above you.
GPS is Powered by the Global Positioning Systems Space Segment
The GPS Space Segment is controlled by the U.S. Air Force and is comprised of 31 satellites. The U.S. Air Force has a commitment to have at least 24 satellites operational at least 95 percent of the time.
These satellites are arranged in such a way around the globe that they form a “constellation” of sorts. Information is transmitted one-way back to earth.
This information is monitored by GPS’s control segment. While the control segment is not putting any satellites in space, they are monitoring information for accuracy and helping distribute the data to civilian applications.
The control segment is also responsible for making minor adjustments to correct any natural errors. Errors in GPS data have huge impacts. A report by Wired recounted a time in 2016, just two years ago, when a 13.7 microsecond GPS error caused a ripple of consequence.
“That’s not a lot to you. If your watch is off by 13.7 microseconds, you’ll make it to your important meeting just fine. But it wasn’t so nice for the first-responders in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Louisiana, whose GPS devices wouldn’t lock with satellites. Nor for the FAA ground transceivers that got fault reports. Nor the Spanish digital TV networks that had receiver issues. Nor the BBC digital radio listeners, whose British broadcast got disrupted. It caused about 12 hours of problems—none too huge, all annoying. But it was a solid case study for what can happen when GPS messes up.
But What About GPS Issues that Aren’t Just Mistakes?
If mistakes are possible in GPS data, the realization that intentional harm could take place through manipulation of GPS data is not far behind. After all, we already know that players of the popular mobile app game Pokemon Go have “spoofed” their location in order to reap benefits of having their phone think they are at a location they are not actually at.
But what if it wasn’t just Pokémon Go spoofing?
With the realization that we as a society rely on GPS data and GPS signals to the extent that we do, and the realization that GPS spoofing is not outside the realm of possibility, it’s no shock that we’d begin to look at some alternatives.
The U.S. government brought up concerns regarding this as early as 2001.
One private company, Satelles, is utilizing a system different than GPS and offers some new benefits along with some potential limitations. Satelles offers STL data, standing for Satellite Time and Location. The data utilized a 66-unit satellite constellation called the Iridium Constellation.
These satellites fly much closer to the earth than a GPS satellite and thus have to transmit information across a shorter distance.
Satelles claims these transmissions are more secure than GPS satellite transmissions.
“STL signals provide the safest, strongest, most dependable backup to our GPS infrastructure. They originate from Iridium satellites, whose beams are high-powered, location-specific, and incredibly difficult to jam. The energy grid, data networks, financial exchanges and military operations all depend on GPS. STL signals can protect them unlike any other, with cryptographic security features that are much more difficult to misdirect or ‘spoof.’”
What Actually Depends on GPS and Would We Be ‘Ok’ Without It?
GPS signals serve a wide array of purposes from military GPS to helping you find your favorite store in the mall.
Reportedly, GPS failure or outages could affect
- The electrical grid
- Transportation systems
- Finance systems
- Communication networks
- Government services
- The distribution of potable water (due to pump failure)
- Refrigeration abilities leading to the loss of perishable food and medicine
We Should Be Prepared For GPS Failure or for Mal-Intentioned GPS Spoofing
GPS data is often mistaken for being just about highway navigation. We hope this guide has shed some light on the true purposes of this near-all-encompassing system. As GPS is a U.S.-owned institution, any changes would come from the government level. Luckily, the U.S. is a democratic republic so informed voters have the ability to elect officials with the interests of their constituents in mind.