New policy might lead to temporary shutdown of GPS in national emergency

| 12/17/2004

The Bush administration is setting up a policy that would allow the president to temporarily shut down the satellites that run the global positioning system, The Associated Press reported Dec. 16.

GPS technology is a vital part of a number of systems used by truckers, including Qualcomm systems used by some carriers, enhanced 9-1-1 cell phone service and some mapping systems.

It is powered by signals from a series of 24 satellites developed by the U.S. military but later opened up to public use, according to government sources. Shutting down the government satellite system would shut down GPS capabilities used by every privately owned receiver on the planet.

On Dec. 15, the president’s Office of Science and Technology Policy posted a documented titled “Fact Sheet on U.S. Space-based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing Policy” on its Web site that described much of the president’s policy, and who would make decisions regarding systems such as GPS in certain circumstances.

The shutdown would occur only in an extreme national emergency, the report said.

That document says that on Dec. 8, Bush established a new policy that covers “implementation actions for space-based positioning, navigation, and timing programs, augmentations, and activities for U.S. national and homeland security, civil, scientific and commercial purposes.” That document noted that GPS and similar systems “provide inherent capabilities that can be used by adversaries, including enemy military forces and terrorist groups.”

“We must continue to improve capabilities to deny adversary access to all space-based positioning, navigation, and timing services, particularly including services that are openly available and can be readily used by adversaries and/or terrorists to threaten the security of the United States,” the president’s science advisers wrote in the document.

“This is not something you would do lightly,” James A. Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told The AP. “It's clearly a big deal. You have to give them credit for being so open about what they’re going to do.”

However, officials at Garmin Industries – a GPS device maker based in the Kansas City area – told The Kansas City Business Journal that because GPS signals are used for so many purposes, it is unlikely that the Bush administration would ever issue an order to shut the system down.

Garmin officials pointed out that allowing public use of the system’s “pinpoint” capability – allowing people to note their location within 15 to 30 feet – was allowed by the government in 2000. Before that, civilians using the system were allowed access to signals that were accurate within roughly 300 feet. The government has retained the right to take away access to the more accurate signals.

Despite that, the system was not shut down after the September 11 attacks in 2001, the officials told The Business Journal.

Presently, the U.S. GPS system is the only such system. Other governments are considering launching similar satellite systems.