Watch CBS News

GPS System Vulnerable to Hacking Attack That Could Cripple Bay Area Economy

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- Imagine an attack in the Bay Area that shuts down the bridges and BART; where the ATMs and your credit cards don't work and planes, trains and Uber are no longer available.

The bad guy is a hacker at an undisclosed location and his target: The U.S. GPS satellite system.

California congressman John Garamendi says it's a real possibility.

"I am very, very concerned. This is a major national security issue. This is a major economic issue," Garamendi said.

Garamendi represents California's 3rd District and serves on the Armed Services and Transportation & Infrastructure committees. He is the ranking member of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation subcommittee.

He said unknown forces are interfering with GPS and it's a dangerous game.

"Yes it can happen and it has happened. There are plenty of incidences."

Garamendi recounted how, last year, a GPS spoofing attack placed 20 ships in the Black Sea at the wrong location.

"The navigation system will say they are in the middle of the airport in Sochi," explained Garamendi.

Russia is suspected but there is no proof.

In another case, a trucker used a GPS jammer he bought on the black market to evade his boss and ended up crippling Newark International Airport in New Jersey as he drove nearby.

"Knocked out the GPS system -- the planes couldn't land! They had absolutely no idea how they were going to make that airport operate," exclaimed Garamendi.

And last summer -- two deadly accidents when U.S. destroyers USS Fitzgerald near Japan and the USS John McCain in the South China Sea struck merchant ships. The two accidents killed 17 U.S. sailors.

An official U.S. Naval Investigative Report issued in November, 2017, points away from a deliberate GPS attack but Garamendi is not convinced and he is not alone.

"Navy ships just don't crash into supply ships," said Greg Winfree, who leads Texas A&M Transportation Institute. He was former Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Winfree spoke on a panel convened by the Space Foundation and attended by space experts, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and Silicon Valley startups at a hotel in San Francisco.

Also on the panel: Andrew Bach, the Senior Technical Advisor for PICO, Kathryn Condello, who is the director of National Security/Emergency Preparedness for CenturyLink, and Caitlin Durkovich who is Director of Toffler Associates.

They agreed that, if the U.S. GPS Satellite System goes down, we're all in a heap of trouble.

"It's going to be a bad day," said Condello.

"The day after tomorrow -- if GPS goes blank -- is quite a bleak one and it's one that we're all working anxiously to avoid," said Winfree.

What could go wrong?

A lot. Emergency 911 calls won't work, planes will be grounded, the power grid could be crippled and ATMS and credit cards won't work.

Nine out of 10 smartphone owners use GPS maps to get around. If you can't read a paper map or the stars, you'll be lost.

If the attack is prolonged, there will be no mechanism to sync up financial networks and Wall Street will unravel.

"At the end of the day, it is a single point of failure," said Durkovich, who headed the panel. Her concern is that the U.S. has no reliable backup system.

"This is, I think, one of the biggest challenges we have in this country," said the moderator.

Durkovich worked for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security under President Obama, as the Assistant Secretary for Infrastructure Protection.

China and Russia both have backup systems on the ground but that's not the case for the United States.

"We are one of the only countries in this world that does not have a terrestrial backup system," explained Durkovich.

Garamendi believes that, for national security, the U.S. should adopt a land-based backup system because, in case of war, all signals from space could be electronically blocked.

"The first thing that will disappear for the military is GPS -- those satellites will be taken out immediately," Garamendi said.

Garamendi is spearheading a plan for a backup system to include in this year's National Defense Authorization Act.

Implementation could cost hundreds of millions of dollars but the cost of a ten-minute outage could be in the billions.

"It has to happen. Otherwise we're heading for a major disaster," Garamendi said.


U.S. Rep. John Garamendi

PDF: Naval Investigative Report on USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain

Space Foundation Technology SF Meeting agenda

Space Foundation

Greg Winfree

U.S. GPS Satellite System

Toffler Associates

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.