GPS is Vital for Supply Chains. What If It Goes Down?

“GPS is vital to Americans, but hacking it has never been easier,” writes Diana Furchtgott-Roth in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal. “GPS depends on satellites, which can be damaged by electromagnetic storms or military attack. Even with the satellites intact, hacking incidents proliferate, using inexpensive, easily available hardware.” 

She cites several examples, both intentional and unintentional, of GPS signals getting jammed and causing disruptions. In one notable case back in 2013, a New Jersey man was fined $32,000 by the Federal Communications Commission after concluding “he interfered with Newark Liberty International Airport’s satellite-based tracking system when he used an illegal GPS jamming device in his pickup truck to hide his whereabouts from his employer.”

(For more on GPS jammers related to trucking/fleets, see these posts by Geotab and Verizon Connect, respectively: “What are GPS jammers and how do you combat them?” and “GPS Jammers: What You Need to Know.” Also, here is a video of a truck driver demonstrating how his jamming device disrupts the GPS signal on his on-board Xatanet unit). 

“As GPS technology advances, the number of threats to the system increases,” write the authors of a Department of Transportation report published in January 2021 (“Complementary PNT and GPS Backup Technologies Demonstration Report”). Here’s more from the report:

Two of these threats are jamming and spoofing. As explained in a DHS report, “jamming is intentionally produced RF waveforms that have the same effect as interference; the only difference is the intent to degrade or deny a target receiver’s operation”, and “spoofing is caused by RF waveforms that mimic true signals in some ways, but deny, degrade, disrupt, or deceive a receiver’s operation when they are processed.” 

As summarized by Furchtgott-Roth, “the [DOT] tested 11 technologies that could be used in the absence of GPS signals, including terrestrial radio signals, fiber networks for timing, Iridium satellites for encrypted signals, and Wi-Fi and cell signals for localization. This isn’t a partisan issue. Congress should allocate funds now [to provide a backup for GPS].”

It is difficult to overstate the importance of GPS in supply chain management today, especially in transportation and delivery operations. Electronic logging devices, real-time visibility, navigation — these things and more are made possible or significantly better because of GPS technology. Like the internet, having GPS go down would be highly disruptive and costly for supply chains (and have significant economic, national security, and health and safety impacts too).

Back in September 2016, I wrote “The Day A Cyber Attack Brings The World’s Supply Chains To A Halt.” It was inspired by Matthew Mather’s CyberStorm, a book about “what a full scale cyber attack against present-day New York City might look like.” Here’s the excerpt that caught my attention:

“FedEx and UPS have ground to a complete standstill today due to what they say is a virus in their logistics shipping software…blaming the hacking group Anonymous after they declared their intention to punish shipping companies for halting shipments of flu vaccines into China. Representatives of Anonymous deny the attack, saying they only initiated denial-of-service…projecting millions of dollars of lost revenue for this holiday season, driving the economy further into recession.”

In Mather’s fictional story, it’s a computer virus that causes widespread disruptions. There have already been many cases of cyber attacks disrupting supply chains, so it’s a realistic possibility. But maybe what truly brings supply chains to a grinding halt will be GPS going down. How prepared are we for that scenario? Apparently, not at all.