The FCC Is Cracking Down On GPS Jammer Use

Amber Berlin

With the ease and affordability of obtaining a GPS jammer on the internet, the average citizen can create chaos, often unaware of the extent of GPS usage and the widespread effect their personal jamming will have. This is bad news for aviation, as many new aircraft technologies are dependent on GPS. If interrupted at a critical time, the loss of GPS can have severe consequences and result in the loss of life. Because of the risks to aviation and other critical sectors, regulatory agencies have begun stepping up their enforcement efforts and new technology has found innovative ways identify and deter jammers. While GPS jamming is a real hazard to aviators, understanding the ways we can combat this unpredictable threat can bring us some peace of mind and increase safety.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the regulatory body responsible for the enforcement of anti-jamming laws. On October 5, 2011, the FCC promised to step up its efforts by launching a major enforcement initiative for actions that breach the Communications Act. Many citations and stop orders have been issued for seemingly benign civilian activities such as posting currently owned jamming devices for sale on Craigslist, while the intentional use of a GPS jammer is against the law and has garnered hefty fines up to $144,000 or more. These fines and citations against both individuals and companies speak to the zero tolerance position of the U.S. government on intentional GPS interference. The FCC’s enforcement division has made a public example from its initial offenders, which has been a powerful deterrent for those considering the sale, purchase, or use of jamming devices.

While GPS jamming is easy to locate in theory, it is much harder in practice. Using current technology the time needed to locate, identify and disable a single GPS jammer was 5 months (Department of Homeland Security, 2012). Whether intentional or unintentional, the hazards of GPS jamming remain the same, causing the United States to search for viable ways to identify where and when GPS jamming is taking place. One suggested mitigation strategy is the concept of Patriot Watch. Designed by Overlook Systems Technologies, Inc., Patriot Watch uses a variety of technology to identify GPS jamming attempts, including locating the offender. Patriot Watch attempts to “reduce the risk to CIKR [Critical Infrastructure and Key Resources] sectors dependent on civil GPS services” by providing a capability to “detect, locate, report and attribute GPS interference” (Overlook Systems Technologies, Inc., 2010, p.3). The Department of Homeland Security has adopted the architecture of Patriot Watch as a mitigation strategy to address malicious GPS jamming attempts.

According to Overlook Systems Technologies, Inc. (2010), the core strategy of Patriot Watch includes a comprehensive solution of “complementary and interdependent technologies, new or refined operational processes, and future command and control venues” (p.3). Patriot Watch technologies include monitoring and collection equipment, such as J911 smart phone crowdsourcing, which attempts to locate the jammer by giving the position information and signal characteristics from cell phones in the jammer’s area. According to GPS systems engineer Logan Scott of LS Consulting, cell phone density is around 1000/km2 in urban areas providing ample opportunity to locate the signal (Scott, 2014). Another deterrent for J911 is to show a warning on the screen of the cell phone that jamming is detected. By using jamming power, jamming duration and channel stability for identification, the likely suspect can be identified and a deterrent message delivered that can scare the GPS jammer into turning off the jamming device (Scott, 2014). JLOC (GPS Jammer Location) is another upcoming technology for Android phone users currently under development by NAVSYS Corporation of Colorado Springs, Colorado, which can provide JLOC sensor reports using internal GPS (Homeland Security Steps Up…, 2011). The JLOC Master Station threat database is a proposed part of the Patriot Watch system, with the capability to report threats to end users.

Two additional supportive programs to complement Patriot Watch were also suggested: Patriot Shield and Patriot Sword. Patriot Shield is designed to harden GPS technologies to resist jamming attempts, and Patriot Sword is an offensive concept to deny civil GPS use to individuals identified as using it to do harm. Both of these concepts, combined with Patriot Watch, are designed to provide a comprehensive solution of GPS jamming mitigation.

GPS interference is not just a U.S. problem but affects countries worldwide. The United Kingdom’s government-funded Sentinel program, a 24-month program to determine GNSS reliability by using 20 roadside sensors, revealed more than 60 GPS jamming attempts in 6 months in a single sensor location. Charles Curry of Chronos Technology, the company leading the project, stated, “We believe there is between 50 and 450 occurrences in the UK every day.” (BBC News, 2012, para. 9). Jammers are illegal to use in the UK, but because of a legal loophole it is legal to import, buy, sell or possess them. In Germany, motorists have used GPS jammers to evade GPS-based road tolls, and the Kaohsiung International Airport in Taiwan reports 117 Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) events per day on average (Scott, 2014). Many countries have taken a stance against GPS jamming because of the potential for affecting critical infrastructures. However, in France and Japan, cell phone jammers are legal for use in public venues.

In 2014, the FCC imposed a fine on a Chinese company for selling GPS jammers in the United States. CTS Technology Co., Limited, an electronics manufacturer and online retailer, allegedly marketed 285 models of signal jamming devices to U.S. consumers and sold 10 of those jammers to undercover FCC personnel. The fine is set at $34.9 million dollars, making it the largest fine in FCC history (FCC, 2014). The FCC is making an example out of CTS Technology, just as it did for the individuals who intentionally used GPS jammers for extended periods of time. These hefty fines are designed to deter future instances of GPS jamming, including the marketing and sales of jammers through the internet. This shows the international community the U.S. has not wavered on its vow to pursue jamming attempts and step up enforcement of FCC regulations.

With more critical technology depending on GPS to function, GPS jamming mitigation has become an essential part of technological advance. Globally, the U.S. has taken the strongest stance against jammer use, with a zero tolerance policy for the marketing, sale, purchase, use, and possession a GPS jammer. With the potential to invoke loss of life, GPS jamming attempts should be met by the cutting edge technology of Patriot Watch, Patriot Sword, and Patriot Shield. This technology has the potential to quickly identify and locate jamming attempts and has initiated the production of hardened technology more resistant to jamming.

As the technologies of Patriot Watch mature and operational procedures are refined, locating and deterring jammers will also become faster. Because GPS is a foundational technology for our critical infrastructures, the FCC should continue to enforce anti-jamming laws to the maximum extent. Considering employee jamming is a large portion of the problem, companies that require GPS tracking should consider adopting the technology to identify jamming at the lowest level, and a no tolerance policy for employees paired with quick identification within the fleet tracking system will eliminate much of the unintentional jamming that could affect CIKR sectors, including aviation.

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References:

BBC News Technology. (2012). Sentinel project research reveals GPS jammer use. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-17119768

Department of Homeland Security. (2012). Patriot Watch: Interference Detection Mitigation (IDM) Vigilance Safeguarding America.

Federal Communications Commission. (2014). Press Release. FCC Plans $34.9 Million Fine Against Chinese Online Retailer of Signal Jamming Devices.

Homeland Security Steps Up to Protect GPS (But not from Light Squared). (2011). The Washington View.

Overlook Systems Technologies, Inc. (2010). Patriot Watch/Patriot Shield/Patriot Sword.

Scott, L. (2014). Strategies for Limiting Civil Interference Effects Inspired by Field Observations, And Why Civil Receivers Need to Have Jamming Meters. L. S. Consulting.

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