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Brits 'have become too reliant on satnav systems'

Researchers: not enough backup if systems fail

Brits have become too reliant on satnav systems, which could cause chaos if the systems go down as there is little or no backup.

"We're not saying that the sky is about to fall in; we're not saying there's a calamity around the corner," Dr Martyn Thomas from the Royal Academy of Engineering told the BBC.

"What we're saying is that there is a growing interdependence between systems that people think are backing each other up. And it might well be that if a number of these systems fail simultaneously, it will cause commercial damage or just conceivably loss of life. This is wholly avoidable."

Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) are used by a number of different devices and organisations from mobile networks and in-car navigation systems to financial systems and even the emergency services. However, should the signal go down, it's likely to cause chaos to all the services and devices that use the signal. As a result, the Royal Academy of Engineering believes receivers should be able to employ a number of different data sources so they can still function should the signal disappear.

Furthermore, a Royal Academy of Engineering report revealed satnav signals in the UK are relatively weak, likening it to receiving light from a bright bulb at a distance of 20,000km. This means they could be subject to man-made attacks such as satellite jamming as well as interference from natural disasters.

'Cascade failures'

"The key thing for us is the concept of cascade failures. This is what we characterise as accidental systems - systems that exist, but people don't recognise they exist because they don't understand the interdependencies. There will be a single common point of vulnerability and failure, but it's not obvious," said Professor Jim Norton, the president-elect of BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, who helped compile the Royal Academy of Engineering report.

"[We concluded] that the backup systems are often inadequate or un-tested; that the jammers are far too easily available and that the risks from them are increasing; that no one has a full picture of the dependencies on GPS and similar systems; and that these risks could be managed and reduced if government and industry worked together."

The Royal Academy of Engineering says awareness of the problem needs to be raised, as well as encouraging satnav users to implement a backup system. Furthermore, hardware solutions with stronger signal reception technology need to be discovered, and the jamming of satellites should be made illegal.

"It's already illegal to put GNSS jamming equipment on the market in the UK," said Norton. "The problem is that it's not necessarily illegal to hold it, to import or even to advertise it. It doesn't require legislation; it just requires [telecoms regulator] Ofcom to place a banning order, and we would strongly recommend they do that."

See also: How to survive the five worst technology disasters


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