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How resilient PNT protects global networks from attack or failure

Time, time, time… See what resiliency brings

With the smartphone revolution, we are increasingly reliant on today’s global technology networks. The importance of protecting data centers and mobile devices with resilient PNT can’t be overstated. But what is the best way to accomplish this?

By Rohit Braggs, Orolia

Connected devices and cloud applications are the primary technology sources for most people today, and an exponentially growing number of those devices are connected to data centers in some way. Across the world, you can drive past countless acres of data centers that are storing, updating and retrieving the world’s data.

GNSS signals localize and timestamp the data collected from connected devices scattered across the world in diverse time zones and locations. They also provide the critical time synchronization that supports high-efficiency data storage, routing and exchanges across multiple data centers in various locations.

It is essential to protect data centers and their GNSS signal connections from system failure, jamming, spoofing, interference and denial of service. As the reliance on GNSS signals and the number of connected devices grow, so too does the threat of GNSS failure. False or unavailable positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) information at any point within this network can compromise security and completely disrupt user service.

This article explores the role of data centers and how their constant connection to devices enables almost every digital technology that we use today. It identifies key reasons why we should protect this interconnected data system from GNSS signal interference and disruption, in addition to providing information on how to ensure continuous signal monitoring and protection with a practical, cost-effective approach.

See also:

The latest tech fights for GNSS resilience

Is internet time good enough for cybersecurity?

Global Technology Networks

Data centers and connected devices affect nearly every aspect of our digital lives, from cloud software and applications to mobile phones and laptops. They store our personal documents, photo libraries and other priceless personal data. They also keep track of business documents, software licenses and other essential business information. In critical infrastructure, they support the daily operations of society’s most important services such as public utilities, banking and financial transactions, telecom, security, medical and defense systems, among others.

Data centers use timestamps as a key mechanism to store, organize and retrieve data. In addition to categorizing data by authorized users and other relevant identification information, the timestamp enables data centers to monitor revisions and retrieve the most recent version of the data.

A good example of timestamped data use is in cloud-based applications, accessed simultaneously by hundreds of thousands of users. In such environments, data is dynamic and changing frequently, which can lead to data conflicts. With accurate, reliable timestamps, a cloud-based application can resolve such conflicts to determine the order in which the data was received.

Why do we need to protect data centers and connected devices from GNSS signal interference?

GNSS signals are the quiet facilitators of many of our day-to-day tasks. In discussing why it is important to protect these signals, it is often easier to imagine what would happen without the accurate, reliable PNT information that these signals provide.

We need to understand two key pieces of information to operate systems: location and time. We need to know exactly where data or assets are located, and we need reliable, consistent time references to synchronize the movement of data and assets for system operations.

There are many documented examples of GNSS signal jamming, spoofing and denial of service attacks worldwide, and these are easy to find with a simple internet search. Here are a few examples of what can happen when the signal is compromised at a mobile or fixed location, but not taken offline. The user might still see that the signal is working, with no indication that the two critical pieces of information, location and time, are being disrupted:

  • Imagine that the timestamp on a security camera system was spoofed to show a different time than the actual time. Incorrect or missing timestamps on video from surveillance systems is the most common reason for video evidence being deemed as inadmissible in a court of law. A bad timestamp corrodes the credibility of the video as irrefutable evidence and makes it easy to dispute.
  • Imagine that a bad actor spoofed the time used by financial trading systems. Since these critical systems rely on GNSS-based time and synchronization, an attack on their underlying timing infrastructure could significantly impact the market and cause billions of dollars in damage.
  • What if the GPS guidance system on your phone or vehicle gave you wrong directions? You could get lost in a wilderness or encounter dangerous driving conditions by trusting the route shown on your device.
  • What if more people started using commercially available jammers? Some truck drivers have already been caught using unauthorized GPS jammers in their vehicles to avoid monitoring by their employers. In many cases, these deevices have affected nearby critical systems such as air traffic control, financial data centers, and other critical operations simply by being driven past with active jammers. The incidence of these disruptions is on the rise.
  • Imagine a secure facility using an access control system that is set to automatically lock and unlock doors at a specific time. If someone spoofed the time used by that system, they could trick the doors into unlocking and gain entry.

We are also seeing an uptick in unintentional or environmental signal interference, which can occur in high-density development areas where various wireless transmitting systems can interfere with GNSS reception.

Which technology solutions are best suited to protect data centers and GNSS signals?

The first step toward protecting a GNSS-reliant system is to test the system for vulnerabilities. GNSS simulators and testing protocols can simulate a spoofing, jamming or denial of service attack to evaluate how the system responds to each situation. Knowing the system’s unique challenges and weaknesses can help resilient PNT experts design the best solution for that system.

One of the most common configurations for a fixed site location includes a highly reliable network time server to ensure that accurate timestamps are applied to each data point. A time server that can identify erroneous or spoofed GNSS signals is recommended for any critical application. In addition, a time series database could be installed to categorize and organize the time-stamped data, while identifying any irregularities in the data.

Once you have reliable timestamps and time server management systems, you also need to continuously monitor the signal to detect interference and raise an alarm. A GNSS signal monitoring system can let you know the minute your system is under attack. A GNSS threat classification system can identify the type of threat and mitigate it, depending on the nature of the threat, by filtering the signal to neutralize the interference.

The best way to prevent GNSS jamming is to deny interfering signals access to the receiver in the first place. Smart antenna technology focuses antenna beams to track the good signals from the satellites and reject the bad signals from interferers. Less sophisticated solutions such as blocking antennas can be employed to reject terrestrial-based interference, which is where most GNSS interference sources exist, and they provide a good first-level protection.

Continuous PNT access can also be achieved by using an alternative signal that operates separately from GPS/GNSS and is less vulnerable to the signal attacks that plague GNSS signals.

Emerging PNT Technologies

Over the next few years, new applications of mobile PNT data will further emphasize the need to maintain system integrity against threats. Here are a few examples of emerging technologies.

5G is here for mobile Internet and telecom service, yet with the specific need for microsecond-level synchronization, the challenge to protect the fidelity of the time used in these systems will become more important.

With rising awareness of the need to protect GNSS signals against threats, individuals will need to determine how they can protect their own GNSS-reliant systems as they navigate the Internet of Things and GIS enabled e-commerce. Personal PNT protection is an emerging technology area that could help protect people and their mobile devices on an individual basis, to ensure GNSS is there when it matters. Whether you are embarking on a remote hiking or sea expedition, sharing your coordinates with an emergency dispatcher after an accident, or simply trekking your way through a new city late at night, having resilient GNSS signal support is becoming a necessity.

Alternative signals are now available, and these new signal options, such as STL (Satellite Time and Location), could play an important role in providing better privacy and security functionality. This signal diversity will help protect against threats and interference by adding resilience to the device’s ability to receive reliable PNT data.

Another exciting technology development is the concept of smart cities, where technology has the opportunity to increase efficiency, reduce waste and provide many conveniences for the public. As we automate more city systems, it is essential to protect these systems from both accidental and malicious GNSS-based interference to ensure that these systems can make decisions based on reliable, precise PNT data.

Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) have the capacity to transform how people and freight travel today, saving lives and bringing goods to market more efficiently than ever. The need to know exactly where a driverless vehicle is in relation to other vehicles at any moment in time is just one of the resilient PNT technology requirements that will rely on GNSS signals.

Finally, authenticated time and location information can help increase cybersecurity for many applications, by limiting data access to a very specific window of time and only in a precise location. This is an area of cybersecurity which has the potential to add new layers of authentication to protect users and their data. With connected devices at the forefront of our access to the world, secure and reliable PNT technologies are more critical than ever.

These are just a few examples among many of the new technology innovations that are in the works to provide us with new benefits in leaps and bounds.

Protecting Our Virtual Brain

Data centers are the technology hubs of today, and their constant connection to devices fuels our ability to access critical information instantly. This networked system serves as a virtual brain that holds our personal memories, charts our progress, enables us to share results and helps us deliver new technology advancements faster than we could ever do before.

As we prepare to embrace our new technology, we should first address the PNT technology challenges of today and ensure that our GNSS signals are resilient and reliable. With this strong foundation in place, we can better protect our current systems and keep pace with evolving threats that would otherwise jeopardize the functionality, safety and security of these new capabilities.

Rohit Braggs is the chief operating officer at Orolia. Based in Rochester, New York, he is responsible for the development and execution of the company’s global business strategy and corporate initiatives. He also serves on the board of directors for Satelles Inc., which provides time and location solutions over the Iridium constellation of low-Earth-orbiting satellites.

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