Everything from computer synchronisation to ship navigation is being linked to GPS signals, and we may be becoming too reliant on these systems. This is the warning from the Royal Academy of Engineering, which has issued a report warning that the system is more vulnerable than we think.
“There is a growing interdependence between systems that people think are backing each other up. And it might well be that if a number these systems fail simultaneously, it will cause commercial damage or just conceivably loss of life. This is wholly avoidable,” researcher Dr Martyn Thomas told BBC News.
The report says the weakness of sat-nav signals leaves them open to interference, either from sabotage or from natural phenomena such as solar flares. The signals are equivalent to receiving the light from a bright bulb at a distance of 20,000km.
GPS is becoming very useful at finding our way through unknown city streets, but the worst thing that would happen if we were cut off would be getting a bit lost. But when financial systems and emergency services depend on the same technology, the consequences are more dire.
Said Dr Thomas: “The back-up systems are often inadequate or un-tested; that the jammers are far too easily available and that the risks from them are increasing,” adding that “no one has a full picture of the dependencies on GPS and similar systems”. The report makes a number of recommendations for actions to take to avoid these problems, but Thomas emphasises the risks could be mitigated if the government and industry co-operated more closely.