A Single Point of Failure

Last week’s seven-hour Facebook outage caused some marketer panic. The obvious plight was the inability to connect with others, use the platform to advertise, or how Instagram influencers might “influence”. The less obvious plight, which still affected millions globally, was the challenge presented to millions when Facebook authentication couldn’t happen. As a platform used to log into all sorts of other websites, the impact of the outage extended far beyond the simplicity of a social media platform going down. It inhibited payment systems like Marketplace, communication between people through WhatsApp, small business sales, and access to information (like newspapers). As Chris Krebs, the former Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) said in a podcast referencing Facebook’s outage, “From a technology standpoint, we are well past the moment of fully understanding and addressing systemic risk.” It was a single point of failure with wide-reaching ramifications, luckily solved after just a few hours.

The CISA highlighted many other vulnerabilities, including the vulnerabilities of GPS. Similar to Facebook, GPS is also a single point of failure, and most people have a limited understanding of its role in their everyday lives. We’re familiar with the Positioning and the Navigation capabilities from GPS, but what is less commonly understood is the Timing that GPS provides – combining to make up the PNT that is often used by industry experts to define more aptly what GPS does. The timing from the atomic clocks present in GPS may be largely invisible to us but delivers time conforming to the Coordinated Universal Time (UTC); a time standard followed by the world and its many devices and systems.

The timing from GPS impacts more of our lives than we realize. From the power grid to stock trades and financial services and cell phone services, if GPS fails, it would do much more than keep us from navigating on our phones to a friend’s address. Since so many technologies were built with GPS, we don’t even have a full sense of what might happen not if – but when – it does fail. We’d see massive power outages (or destroyed power grids), ATMs malfunctioning, debit and credit cards not working, and cell phone calls not connecting. Emergency services might cease as the operators in 911 Public Safety Answering Points wouldn’t know where callers were – nor would the maps or radio communications for the first responders looking to find them and communicate with each other.
Container ships might be stuck in ports (even worse than now), because cranes rely on GPS to unload them. Cloud computing software would glitch without the ability to know the accurate time. Air traffic controllers would have a chaotic situation on their hands with thousands of airplanes relying on older systems to navigate safely and ships in the middle of the ocean would lose their sense of place. Drones would cease operation to be able to monitor natural disasters (and all defense-related usage would stop), meteorologists couldn’t predict the weather, and digital TV and radio wouldn’t work either. The CISA report names earth drilling, pipelines, health care monitoring, and defense asset training among several other areas of critical infrastructure. The wrong positioning signals could also be viewed as acts of aggression by a foreign power, and potentially even lead to war.

Just how likely is this dystopian scenario? Frighteningly, all too likely. GPS can be hacked, jammed, and spoofed. It happens quite frequently on a smaller scale by US adversaries (Russia does this in the Black Sea frequently with ships and spoofing their location and hacking their systems – most notably this past summer with more than 100 ships, many US and European military vessels). Even children around the globe figured out how to spoof their location when playing Pokemon Go. There are thousands of documented issues. Even natural phenomena – like solar flares – could take down our entire constellation of satellites and cause this disruption.

Our nation needs a resilient PNT system, and fortunately, there are alternatives – not to replace GPS, but to solve the challenges of its vulnerabilities. The Department of Transportation tested eleven different alternatives against a variety of use cases and released a report on the results back in January. While we all watched the Facebook outage last week, the two companies that had top-performing solutions in the DoT report, NextNav and Satelles, announced an alternative PNT testbed in the Bay Area in a demonstration for the Department of Homeland Security. With signals 100,000 times stronger than GPS, NextNav’s terrestrial-based TerraPoiNT system makes it much harder to jam or spoof.

It is important to secure the systems and devices that help our everyday lives run smoothly, but also ensure that the future innovations in technology that will rely on GPS have a resilient layer that will work in the absence of GPS. Autonomous vehicles, urban air mobility, and drones are no longer just ideas brought to life in The Jetsons – they are already here.

We need to provide alternative, resilient layers to GPS since it is a single point of failure. It’s about time.

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