National Physical Laboratory

Illegal GPS jammers found in the UK

The first direct evidence of Global Positioning System (GPS) jammers in use in the UK has been presented at NPL during 'GNSS Vulnerability 2012: Present Danger, future threats', an event organised by the ICT Knowledge Transfer Network. This event brought together the world's experts on location and timing systems to understand their susceptibility to attack.

Navigation systems such as those found on ships could be adversely affected by the jamming of GPS signals (image courtesy of Dreamstime)
Navigation systems such as those found on ships could
be adversely affected by the jamming of GPS signals
(image courtesy of Dreamstime)

GPS technology has become an integral part of modern life. It is commonly found in smartphones or on car dashboards to provide location data and help users with directions, but many more complex navigation systems, including those of ships and planes, also rely on the technology. Any disruption to the GPS signal could therefore have devastating consequences.

The evidence of illegal GPS jamming in the UK comes from roadside monitoring carried out by the SENTINEL project which looks at whether satellite navigation systems, including GPS, can be trusted by their users. NPL is one of seven partners in this project, which is led by Chronos Technology and funded by the Technology Strategy Board and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

During the SENTINEL project, jamming monitors were placed at around 20 locations in the UK. At one particular location, which has been monitored continuously for the past six months, over 60 individual jamming incidents were recorded, and the results at another have already led to the recovery of a jamming device. The next step is to update the monitoring equipment so that it can differentiate between different jammers, giving researchers a better idea of how many individuals at a particular location are jamming GPS signals.

The results from SENTINEL will be accompanied by a presentation from the General Lighthouse Authorities highlighting how overly reliant ships are on GPS. In 2010, researchers produced low level jamming and reviewed its effects on the onboard systems in ships on the English Channel. The results ranged from ships veering off course to the failure of vital communications systems.

Speakers at the event will also be looking at 'spoofing', which is the generation of false GPS signals in order to alter users' perceptions of time and location and could be the next major threat to navigation systems. Although GPS is most commonly associated with navigation, another sector potentially at risk is high-frequency financial trading. Criminals could throw off the GPS timing systems that time-stamp financial trades, a process known as 'time sabotage'. Even a few milliseconds discrepancy could create confusion and enable unscrupulous traders to leverage their knowledge of the timing discrepancy for financial gain.

Bob Cockshott, Director of Position, Navigation and Timing at the ICT Knowledge Transfer Network, and organiser of the conference, said:

"Today's evidence from roadside monitoring shows that we have moved on from a potentially threatening situation to a real danger that we must address now. With the reliance on GPS systems in the maritime environment, highlighted by the General Lighthouse Authority, our vulnerability on land and at sea should not be underestimated. As well as immediate concerns, this conference has laid out the next generation of threats, in the form of spoofing and time sabotage – deliberately misleading users for criminal purposes rather than simply denying service. We must ensure that alongside dealing with the threat posed by jamming, we also stay ahead of advances in the criminal world."

Read more about this story in coverage from the BBC, New Scientist, Financial Times, The Telegraph and Wired

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For more information, please contact Bob Cockshott

Last Updated: 17 Apr 2012
Created: 22 Feb 2012