James Lee Phillips
Jul 13, 2012

"Hack-proof" nav: BAE's red herring

Recently, the tech media reported on a new technology that was inaccurately termed a "hack-proof GPS". A better description, although perhaps less groomed for headlines, would be a "cheap and clever alternative to GPS". Whether it's really hack-proof remains to be seen, and whether navigation is its central purpose may be open to doubt.

The technology -- a throwback to triangulation

The tech is called Navigation via Signals of Opportunity (NAVSOP). Loosely translated, "Signals of Opportunity" means "whatever signals we can get our hands on". The idea is to coordinate one's own position using the existing web of radio frequency signals as a navigational map.

BAE infographic describing the various sources used for triangulation location, prominently featuring a sentinel-like UAV.James Baker, Managing Director at BAE Systems Advanced Technology Centre, managed to include "innovation", "cost-effective","outside-the-box" and "game-changer"  in a single paragraph   describing NAVSOP, which will likely earn him a nomination for the Executive Language awards this year. What is missing, however, is any meaningful description of the technology itself. So what more do we actually know about it?

BAE proudly claims that NAVSOP is accurate in places which have been historically problematic for GPS, including "dense urban areas, deep inside buildings, and even underground and underwater." We know that NAVSOP can "calculate the user's location within a few metres." In addition to the military applications, BAE also claims that it will help "fire and rescue services find their way through smoke filled buildings and enhancing the safety of lone workers and security staff."

Perhaps BAE means that safety would be enhanced because the rescue team is able to maintain a lock on their own location, but it sounds as if NAVSOP can be used to deliver an accurate location to others. If you can triangulate your coordinates using two other known points, you can use your coordinates, along with another known point, to triangulate the source of a third signal. In other words, in addition to navigation, NAVSOP may be a means of precise location tracking of any "signal of opportunity" -- WiFi routers and cell phones included.

If you're not familiar with the concept of triangulation, it's a pretty easy one to grasp loosely. Once you have any two reference points forming one side of a triangle, the final point can then be calculated using the resulting pair of angles. Using a network of such triangles, any point can be accurately calculated. Ancient navigators, mapmakers, and astronomers relied upon this technique, and it survives to this day in everything from surveying methods to cell phones. Until the rise of the Global Positioning System, triangulation was basically the only game in town.

GPS provided more accuracy than earlier navigation technology, which mainly consisted of variations on Inertial navigation systems. Initially developed for WWII rockets, INS established a fixed starting point and then accurately calculated navigation via gyroscopes and accelerometers within the moving craft itself. The only problem with INS was the errors -- insignificant at first, but becoming major errors with increasing distance and velocity. With the aid of regular error correction, however -- using, for instance, the fixed positions of GPS -- INS could be reliable as a backup in situations where GPS signals were interrupted.

Indeed, very few navigation systems limit themselves to a single method. Consumer-grade GPS is impressively accurate, but pales in comparison to the precise positioning and redundant backups available to military tech. Until fairly recently, it was a poorly-kept secret that consumer GPS was intentionally crippled by the military, but that's no longer the case; the only real limit on GPS effectiveness is cost-effectiveness.

GPS' Achilles' heel

A 3D rendering of a Sentinel umanned aerial vehicle -- the type of drone involved in the "beast of Kandahar" incident.Well, there's another little matter that makes GPS less attractive than it once was. The reason for promoting the "hack-proof" quality of NAVSOP seems directly inspired by the Beast of Kandahar incident. Last year, an Iranian engineer claimed that his team had used a GPS hack to commandeer a high-tech US drone. By intercepting the GPS signal and "spoofing" the coordinates, the Iranians were able to force the Sentinel to land at a location of their choosing. The claims were dismissed by US officials (who later asked Iran to give us our drone back) but there's no denying that GPS spoofing can be used for exactly that purpose -- as an engineering team at UT Austin recently demonstrated, to the US Defense Department.

The low-cost GPS capabilities of most smartphones aren't as good as the average Garmin or car-based GPS, which aren't as good as industrial-grade GPS (e.g., automated farming equipment), which in turn aren't as good as military-grade systems. However, the humble smartphone GPS app has something that more expensive GPS systems can lack -- backup and integration with additional signals. Cell phones use cell tower triangulation to calculate positional data, and they are also equipped with INS-style gyroscopes and accelerometers (although how well the positional system is integrated with these features, if at all, varies widely from one smartphone to another).

NAVSOP is therefore closer to your phone than it is to your car, and closer to ancient navigation than it is to geosynchronous satellites. Though "a collection of redundant systems" may be an inaccurate description, NAVSOP does depend on a "fallback" method of utilizing non-proprietary signals rather than a purpose-built network.

GPS has not been abandoned; in fact, the list of potential signals for the NAVSOP blender starts with GPS, along with traditional air traffic control signals (i.e, RADAR-informed communications between flights and fixed ground controllers).  If there are cell towers, those are added to the mix. If there are TV and radio broadcasts, that helps too. WiFi? Yes, please. Even the signals of the GPS jammers become an inadvertent assistant to NAVSOP; it doesn't need to know what kind of signal it "sees" in order to incorporate the RF data into its positional grid.

But BAE is certainly presumptuous to consider NAVSOP as "hack proof". Everything is hack-proof until it gets hacked, and hackers are very, very good at what they do. We may never know if the Beast of Kandahar was actually hacked by Iranians, but -- as we've seen with the UT Austin Radionavigation Laboratory -- we know for a fact that GPS spoofing is not only possible but well within reach of civilian and military hackers alike.

And that's not a bad thing. Hackers can certainly be a nuisance and / or a danger, but the white hats are working for us, and one can argue that even the less wholesome ones actually help to mitigate potential abuses of technological power -- in the same way that the institutional surveillance cameras are balanced by private citizens carrying video cameras. When a defense contractor such as BAE brazenly entitles a section of its website "Watching Your Actions", you do have to wonder who is watching THEIR actions.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

BAE is among the world's major defense contractors, THE largest in the UK and Australia, and occupying the short list of crucial defense contractors in India, Saudi Arabia, and the US. With the purchase of the Aerospace Electronic Systems division of Lockheed Martin, BAE solidified its status among the US military-industrial complex "Big 10", along with Raytheon, General Dynamics, Boeing, and the aforementioned Lockheed Martin -- all of whom have been rumored as potential BEA merger candidates. In addition to a long history of making air, land, and sea armaments, BAE produces military electronic systems, from NAVSOP to radar installations to anti-money laundering methods.

A BAE concept model of an unmanned combat system at the Farnborough Airshow 2012 in southern England July 11, 2012.On that note, BAE is also infamous for, as US District Judge John Bates said, "deception, duplicity and knowing violations of the law, I think it's fair to say, on an enormous scale". In addition to supplying arms and / or funds to questionable governments in Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Israel, and especially the Chilean regime of dictator Augusto Pinochet, BAE has a long-standing and scandal-ridden relationship with Saudi Arabia. Whether via bribery to or economic threats from Saudi Arabia, the government of the UK has been virtually subjugated to the goodwill of the ruling Saudi family, whose Al Qaeda and Taliban ties have been simultaneously established and downplayed in the UK and US. Similarly, members of the UK government (including Prince Andrew and former PM Tony Blair) have classified or discontinued (for reasons of national security and economics) every investigation into whether rampant corruption, fraud, and other criminal behavior occurred between BAE and Saudi Arabia. The best that the US and UK justice system could achieve was a fine, but BAE won the right to strike the word "corruption" from the UK ruling, and to continue to provide the US with major defense contracts.

Perhaps even more troubling, BEA has run a Nixonian / J. Edgar Hooverian campaign of infiltration and dossier-building on potential opponents. When the Coalition Against Arms Trade (CAAT) attempted to persuade the UK justice system to review the dropping of a governmental Saudi Arabian fraud investigation, BAE contacted CAAT and revealed that the company had acquired all of CAAT's confidential paperwork and evidence -- pilfered via clandestine BAE plants within the peace organization

How comfortable can anyone feel if this company has developed a precise means of location tracking using any signal? Even if you're a firm patriot who believes that classified secrets and military surveillance are in the nation's best interests, you'll be anxious about the dubious "hack-proof" claims of a corporation with a history of fraud, and fingers in countless enemy pockets. Conversely, if you're any kind of civil libertarian, you'll shudder at the thought of a planet-wide network of precise location tracking in the hands of a regularly callous and clandestine member of the inner circle of the military-industrial complex. 

But does all of the evidence all add up to a giant network of government surveillance? That's an impossible conclusion given the known data -- impossible, but also not improbable. On one hand, the "Beautiful Minds" at BAE encourage the innovative potential of both military and civilian applications (everything from search-and-rescue operations to Google's robot cars). The PR on NAVSOP has proudly trumpeted the navigational interpretation, saying nothing about the location tracking potential (if any). The "hack-proof" element has been prominent, possibly to make readers feel better even if they have vague suspicions.

But between the high-tech surveillance, dirty deals for military defense contracts, offshore front companies with funds going to anonymous Swiss bank accounts, infiltration of peace groups and murky relationships with unsavory foreign governments with terrorist ties, you have the plot of a complex conspiracy thriller -- or an Alex Jones-style paranoid prediction. Lest I sound overly dismissive, neither narrative actually precludes the potential validity of such a theory. If it all turns out to be true, let's hope that there's also a 007 or Jake Ryan (or CAAT) preparing to save the world as we speak.