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The Scary Threat to GPS That Could Paralyze U.S. Businesses

We've become massively dependent on global positioning. An outage would cost us billions of dollars. And there's no backup — yet.

A growing problem for GPS: The U.S. doesn't have a backup system. Most of our critical infrastructure, including power grids, banks, transportation systems and telecom networks, relies on the Global Positioning System. Beyond mapping for transportation and other location services, GPS is used for highly precise timing necessary for high-speed financial trading, wireless network synchronization and power grid synchronization. But the rising risk of a major outage goes largely unnoticed. "I think GPS vulnerability doesn't attract much attention because there have not been any major calamities yet, unlike with cybersecurity," says Marc Weiss, a researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

GPS and other timing systems will be even more vital to modern life in the years ahead. Timing signals need to be even more precise for the rise of connected sensors, devices and machines, known as the Internet of Things. A government report from last year concludes that a lack of highly precise timing systems could stall new technologies, such as split-second collision avoidance systems in cars or communication links in a smart electric grid.

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The U.S. is more at risk than countries such as Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom, which all have some form of terrestrial backup system. GPS disruptions happen all the time because the signal is weak and extremely vulnerable to interference. "Terrorists can mount an attack with just a GPS jammer," says Goward. The jammers can cost less than $50 each and are extremely hard to track and stop. Note that companies such as U.K.-based Spirent offer equipment that assists in detection of GPS jamming to help fend off such interference.

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Sales of GPS equipment will jump once a backup system is in the works. Maker of GPS receivers, which have dealt with years of flat sales, stand to benefit, since a whole generation of equipment will need to be replaced to incorporate the backup system. Eventually, even consumer devices will get updated. Sales of GPS equipment will jump once a backup system is in the works. Maker of GPS receivers, which have dealt with years of flat sales, stand to benefit, since a whole generation of equipment will need to be replaced to incorporate the backup system. Eventually, even consumer devices will get updated. Vendors of GPS gear and related services include UrsaNav, Chronos Technology, Garmin and Taviga.

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