Out in Front: Live Free or Die Hard

August 1, 2012  - By

The 2007 action film of that name concerns a domestic criminal plot, disguised as a terrorist attack upon U.S. infrastructure: an Internet-based hack into Federal Bureau of Investigation computers, the transportation infrastructure, the stock market, national video broadcast channels, the utility power grid, the National Security Agency, and the Department of Defense nerve center. One of the film’s two heroes recognizes this as a fire sale, an attack upon the nation’s computer controls, an attack in which “everything must go.”

Inspiration for the film came from a 1997 article in Wired magazine, “A Farewell to Arms,” written by John Carlin. “For those on the ramparts of the world’s sole superpower, the digital winds are blowing an icy chill through the triumphant glow of the post-Cold War,” the article begins. “Suddenly, the satellites over North America all go blind . . .” it envisions in mid-stride.

As prescient as the 1997 article is, and as slam-bang inclusive of almost every bit of taken-for-granted infrastructure as the 2007 actioner tries to be, neither one mentions GPS. There’s no reason why they couldn’t — they just didn’t. We can remedy that right now, with the following imagined scenario.

The placid mood of a lazy spring afternoon shatters at 4:53 p.m. Mountain Standard Time when the GPS constellation goes offline worldwide.

Long reliant on GPS timing for load management, electrical grids begin to move out of synch. A minor problem in a southern Illinois sub-station quickly morphs into a cascading power outage that plunges the North American continent into darkness.

The Pentagon command center detects a massive distributed denial of service attack underway on key areas of American military, utility, and aviation infrastructures. Air traffic flow systems are paralyzed, followed by train controls. Cellular networks collapse. Automatic cash machines and banking networks quickly roll down their shutters. All depended on GPS for positioning, navigation, timing, or all three; they simply cannot function without. Backups, long discussed but never deployed, can’t help.

Computerized transfer of information grinds to a halt nationwide. Mayhem ensues. Riots break out in large cities. Police forces join the ranks of the newly crippled, and are forced to deal with unrest in the old-fashioned way: going out into the streets on foot.

As a once-beautiful day descends into long dark night, confusion, desperation, and fear spread black wings across the world.

The information has been lost.

Doomsday scenarios go in and out of fashion. Lately they’re all the rage. I was startled by an April article in Smithsonian that led to my May editorial “That’s Denial.” But now I’m noticing these portents more and more.

Every benefit brings its own drawback, every strength its own weakness. The principle applies not only to technology, but to every branch of human endeavor, of the natural adaptive world, even to the laws of physics. We little realize how totally reliant our civilization has become on very precise information. Without backups, defenses, mitigation, and safeguards, even a momentary loss of information can wreak catastrophic effects. Witness the recent Facebook Fumble, described by Chuck Shue of UrsaNav at the ION PLANS meeting:

“On May 18, 2012 the ripple effect of two (2) extra milliseconds of delay required to calculate the opening price during the Facebook initial public stock offering produced damages to Facebook estimated from $40 million to $400 million — for one stock. Although not as widely known, Nanex reported that the timing glitch, probably from errors in routing software, also affected Apple, Intuit, Netflix, QualComm, Zynga, and other stocks.

“What if this were the result of time spoofing, rather than simply a programming error?” he asked.

This is the demonstrated effect of an accidental 2-millisecond delay, in one market of one sector of the national economy. In the case of a prolonged outage, a sustained attack by spoofing, jamming or other means, on the neural center of national infrastructure — that is, GPS — the mind staggers.

We live by lightning-quick transmission and exchange of data. We may just die by it. The cloud touted as the ultimate warehouse, routing center, and solution to business challenges may dump acid rain on our picnic one day.

Our world is driven by information flow in ways unfathomed just a few years ago — and don’t we love it? The technological and societal changes associated with computers, the Internet, Information-Age thinking, and all our neo-survival tools still manage to leave us extremely exposed.

Benjamin Wash, who originated the GPS doomsday scenario at the beginning and many other thoughts throughout this column, wrote “The data sea upon which we sail grows exponentially vaster, and ever more complex and vulnerable, by the day. Our reliance on and need to gain information advantage intensifies as the world becomes more digitally integrated and competitive. Resource competition among nations is fierce, and those who control information exercise control over resources to a greater extent than in any time in our history.

“Information access, flow, and aggregation enable the achievement of strategic and tactical advantage, but also the potential for mayhem. As an entity and as individuals, we cannot afford to be blind to this paradigm-altering reality: information drives the world.”

Our correspondent had more to say concerning the Congressional melee — only be sure to call it, please, negotiation — over the defense budget. GPS, although not perceived by most to be at the center of this, does actually occupy that critical, key position because of the way it coordinates everything else.

The proliferation of sophisticated electronic weaponry and technologies such as GPS jammers and spoofers, empirically evidenced in two articles in this issue, “Drone Hack” and “Going Up Against Time,” show just how vulnerable our golden standard is — and how saliently that vulnerability has emerged — in this information-based era.

The GPS constellation and its associated signals are the primary source of PNT information, which increasingly drives all other information domains in the nation, not to mention for our overseas combatants and coalition allies. Over the coming decades, rapid technological advances will further remake whole sectors of the national infrastructure and national security.

These improvements are contingent upon steady resource allocation within the Air Force. Future on-orbit systems, such as GPS III and its associated capability improvements, are under extreme budgetary pressure for their high cost. Some improved capabilities have already been shelved due to budget constraints, and more may follow. Key among these are strengthened defense of the system; only a few steps have been envisioned, and fewer taken. Many more mitigations, defenses, and backups must emerge from conceptualization into design, testing, and deployment.

Technology’s complexity makes buy-in by policy makers difficult. Technical advances, both achieved and anticipated, are hard to defend in the budget battles on the Hill. But that’s our job, so step up.

Let’s return briefly to the Carlin article. “For all the bustle, there’s no clear direction. For all the heat, there isn’t a great deal of light. For all the talk about new threats, there’s a reflexive grasp for old responses — what was good enough to beat the Soviet Union and Saddam Hussein will be good enough to beat a bunch of hackers. Smarter hardware, says the Pentagon. Bigger ears, says the NSA. Better files, says the FBI.”

Has anything changed since those words were written in 1997? Hardly.

There are no easy answers in the coming knife fights over the defense budget. Vital technologies will vanish under the flailing and battledust of political striving for personal and party advantage.

Decision makers must understand that information systems are the backbone of all we do — and that GPS drives more and more of those information technologies, through its micro-precise electronic timing.

It’s our job to educate lawmakers and beancounters. A letter to your three Congresspeople is a simple yet effective educational tool.

Live free or die hard.

About the Author:

Alan Cameron is editor-in-chief and publisher of GPS World magazine, where he has worked since 2000. He also writes the monthly GNSS Design & Test e-Newsletter and the Wide Awake blog.

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