The Federal Communications Commission could institute a relatively simple way of monitoring -- and mitigating -- interference to signals used in wireless communications, according to a source from the Position, Navigation and Timing community reacting to congressional inquiries on the security of mobile broadband services.
Position, Navigation and Timing refers to the ability to offer these services by precisely coordinating a host of satellites and clocks -- in space and on the ground -- which, in the U.S., is recognized as the Global Positioning System.
Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency officials have identified PNT as a leading “systemic risk,” where vulnerabilities could lead to catastrophic cross-sector consequences, including for financial transactions and microsurgery, in addition to the popular GPS mapping applications.
“The FCC has an ongoing responsibility to ensure the proper use of the airwaves generally,” Dana Goward, president of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation, which works to improve the integrity of GPS signals, told Inside Cybersecurity.
And, he said “This actually is much easier for GPS than it might be for other areas because we have so many GPS receivers” -- in cell phones, for example, and connected devices across the economy.
Goward, who is also a senior advisor to Strategic Command’s Purposeful Interference Response Team, said the receivers in such devices could easily report disruptions through the network to a central location. He said there are companies that could easily implement such a system and would be eager to entertain “a reasonably small contract” with the appropriate federal entity.
Designation of federal agencies' responsibilities for monitoring and mitigating interference is spelled out in National Security Presidential Directive 39, which was issued in 2004. But the document, which is currently being updated by the National Space Council, leaves room for varied interpretation.
“One could argue that the FCC should be interested in and should be the one to sponsor such a contract, collect the data, and then use it to ensure that we have the minimal amount of disruption,” Goward said, noting the FCC’s enforcement resources have waned, particularly over the last decade.
In a Dec. 19 letter, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and ranking member Greg Walden (R-OR) asked FCC Chairman Ajit Pai how he intends to “ensure new [mobile broadband] services are sufficiently secure."
The FCC has mainly considered its jurisdiction to be over GPS transmitters, such as satellite communications company Ligado -- the National Telecommunications and Information Administration on Dec. 6 told Pai it is “unable to recommend approval” of the company’s proposal for spectrum use -- but Goward said it might be appropriate for the agency to broaden its outlook to include receivers, something FCC Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel has advocated.
Goward suggested the FCC might be avoiding expanding its outlook because it’s both afraid of what it might find, and because it hasn’t been forced by a high-profile disruption to do so.
“The FCC is almost turning a blind eye to GPS interference because they really don't want to know how much of it is out there,” he said. “Nothing really bad has happened to cause them to focus on it.”
But waiting for something to happen before taking preventative action is not a model to follow, he said.
“We didn’t reinforce the cockpit doors of airliners before 9-11, we didn't reinforce the levees before Katrina, you can go through history…” he said, “for decades, people were saying we ought to put a smell into natural gas so that when there's a leak people will be able to tell. That only happened after an entire school blew up in Texas and all the children were killed and half a town was leveled.”
He said “the examples go on and on of the gathering storm but people not heeding it.” -- Mariam Baksh (firstname.lastname@example.org)