SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- Saturday marked 20 years since the deadliest ever terror attack on U.S. soil. But some technology experts are warning about a growing security threat that has left the nation vulnerable to catastrophe.
Thanks to GPS and cyberspace, the world is at our fingertips. 8 out of 10 Americans now own a smart phone, and the vast majority of the nation is interconnected.
But experts tell KPIX 5 that this incredible technological success has left the U.S. and its citizens vulnerable.
One big reason is time. Thanks to GPS, highly precise time keeps the world ticking. In the United States, that includes the power grid, telecommunications, and financial transactions
"Everything's dependent on GPS," said Professor Marc Weiss.
GPS is the U.S. system of 31 satellites orbiting the earth. On each one, there are multiple atomic clocks. Those clocks provide precise time to the one billionth of a second or nanosecond.
These time systems that are linked to GPS keep vital infrastructure back on earth synchronized, and properly working. 5G depends on it.
"It is a fantastic system," stated Weiss.
But the mathematician and physicist has grown increasingly concerned about a major attack that could take out the U.S. utility.
"It would decimate us. This would make the pandemic look like child's play," exclaimed the top expert.
The reason is an unsettling fact known to experts like Weiss.
Weiss explained there is no back up system to the U.S. GPS. That makes the utility a target and highly vulnerable to a major event such as a natural disaster such as a powerful geomagnetic storm or a deliberate attack by America's enemies.
"It's got this big bull-eyes on it because it's the only system we've got. And boy you take it down you kill the United States of America," noted Weiss.
A prolonged outage would result in numerous catastrophic problems: The power grid would go down. ATMs, credit cards and financial systems would stop working. Digital television and doppler radar for weather forecasts would cease to function. If you called 911, emergency responders would struggle to find you.
"Attacking GPS would ripple through every facet of American society and immediately impact every American, " noted Dana Goward, President of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation.
The scientific nonprofit is collecting reports on more frequent and powerful attempts to interfere with GPS. The attacks involve jamming and spoofing signals.
"I'm very concerned about a 9/11 attack focused around GPS. Our adversaries have every motivation to do that," said Goward.
China and Russia have multiple backups to their GPS, including ground-based systems. Both have also developed anti-satellite technologies.
"We have been talking about it since 2002. We're doing pretty good talking about it, but we're not very good about doing anything about it," said Pat Diamond, an expert in timing and synchronization technologies.
Diamond is a member of the U.S. National space-based Positioning, Navigation and Timing Advisory Board or PNT for short. Diamond is concerned about the lack of a backup system.
When KPIX 5 asked Diamond why we don't yet have a backup system, he said GPS is so reliable and accurate, many believe an attack will never happen. Those people believe the experts like Diamond, Goward and Weiss are crying wolf.
"It's the politicians who don't want to stick their neck out for something they don't really understand," noted Diamond.
GPS is not the only target.
"Space is becoming a major domain in the world, but it's all enabled through cyber and the needs for cybersecurity technologies," explained longtime cybersecurity expert Dave DeWalt.
DeWalt was the former CEO of several companies, including McAfee, FireEye, and Mandiant. He is now founder and CEO of NightDragon, an investment and advisory firm that focuses on investing into areas of national security and cyber security, as well as private security.
DeWalt has worked for the past 20 years on cybersecurity and is concerned about the United States.
"I'd like to say we're prepared. But we're not prepared. I believe we are highly unprepared for what's happening," warned DeWalt.
The expert pointed to the recent hacks that took down Colonial Pipeline as well as Solar Winds. He told KPIX 5 that from his knowledge and experience, that the cyberattacks are escalating in size and severity in great part because the U.S. is so wired.
He added that more countries have cyber weapons than have nuclear arsenals.
"I talk about it as the 5th battleground," said DeWalt.
A Cybersecurity Ventures report estimates that in 2021, the global cost of ransomware attacks would reach $57 billion. That's 57 times higher than just 5 years ago. The attacks are cheap to deploy.
"You don't need a F-14 fighter plane. You don't need a B-2 bomber. You don't need boots on the ground. You can simply sit at a computer and deploy a sophisticated virus," explained former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
Panetta, who co-founded the Panetta Institute for Public Policy with his wife Sylvia in 1997, has warned of a digital 9/11 attack for years and has been criticized for fearmongering. He told KPIX 5 the threat is real and could paralyze the United States.
Panetta said there are three major steps that need to be taken to protect the United States. Build "a national strategy; develop better cyber sources and cyber technology and nurture a partnership between the public and private sectors."
"If we don't develop that partnership then it's going to be very difficult to be able to stop our adversaries from having their way" added Panetta.
He noted it may be tough given how divided the nation remains, but that it's critical to develop a deep trust between all parties.
Weiss said it would cost about $50 million to put in a backup system. Given that U.S. GPS provides about $1.4 trillion in economic benefits -- and that if it goes down, we would lose about $1 billion a day -- the cost seems quite small.
Experts told KPIX the past three administrations approved of backup, but the funding never materialized.
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