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The U.S. Dependence On GPS Has Created A New Vulnerability


The U.S. and China have a long-running geopolitical competition, which is unlikely to change anytime soon, even with a new presidential administration. One way that plays out - a new kind of space race involving global navigation technology. Here's Dan Boyce from Colorado Public Radio.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...Nine, eight...

DAN BOYCE, BYLINE: Back in November in Cape Canaveral, Fla., The private company SpaceX launched one of its Falcon 9 rockets.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...Two, one, zero. Ignition. Liftoff. Go, Falcon. Go, GPS.

BOYCE: One of the new and updated GPS satellites - that was the payload. It's the fourth one launched so far of dozens planned. The same GPS that helps you navigate with your smartphone has always been owned by the U.S. military, and it's run from an Air Force base in Colorado Springs. The new satellites - they're built in Colorado, too, at a $128 million Lockheed Martin facility near Denver.

DEANNA BURT: GPS is used in so many ways in our day-to-day way of life.

BOYCE: Space Force director of operations and communications, Major General DeAnna Burt. Those uses go so far beyond Google Maps. All ATM transactions use GPS. That's one tiny example. Major General Burt says the new satellites are three times more precise.

BURT: Make your location, your dot on the map be much more accurate.

BOYCE: As both the civilian world and the military use GPS in more and more ways, it potentially leaves the U.S. a lot more vulnerable.

BURT: Our enemies have understood how reliant we have become on GPS, so they are looking for ways to take it from us.

BOYCE: In other words, if an enemy were to jam GPS as American troops were heading into battle, they could be left essentially blind. To stop that, the new U.S. GPS satellites have eight times the anti-jamming technology.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

BOYCE: So now we're hearing another satellite launch, one from last summer.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

BOYCE: It's the last satellite in China's own global navigation system named BeiDou. The Chinese have been working on it for decades, not wanting to depend on GPS, knowing the U.S. could lock them out in a conflict. Blake Berger is a senior program officer at the Asia Society Policy Institute. He says BeiDou is also part of a much larger effort known as the Belt and Road Initiative.

BLAKE BERGER: And is meant to serve somewhat as the digital glue that ties all these different components together.

BOYCE: China has been spending billions of dollars building ports, highways and bridges around the world. And Berger says they're constructing digital networks to build smart cities monitored by BeiDou. This not only increases the host country's dependency on Chinese technology.

BERGER: It also provides Beijing with access to and potential control over vast amounts of information that could have significant military and intelligence implications.

BOYCE: For the time being, the American GPS is the oldest and still most widely used network in the world, though when you use Google Maps, you're often using multiple countries' navigation satellites without even knowing, including China's. Eric Frazier co-authored a book on the history of GPS. He says the BeiDou satellites can access data about users in ways no other navigation satellites can, including location data.

ERIC FRAZIER: They have touted on Chinese television the ability to not only know where you are but to share where you are with other people.

BOYCE: The fear is that anyone using BeiDou, wherever they are, could in theory be tracked by China.

FRAZIER: If the actual device is sending its location information back to the satellite system.

BOYCE: There is plenty of skepticism concerning how much data BeiDou can see about its foreign users. Voice of America reports the U.S. military does not use BeiDou, though many other countries are signing on. For GPS expert Eric Frazier, it's yet another example of Beijing's bid to create a world wholly outside of American influence.

FRAZIER: It is basically part of an integrated ecosystem that they are offering as a sort of alternative to the historical U.S.-led post-World War II order.

BOYCE: part of a widening gulf in an information age increasingly divided into West and East. For NPR News, I'm Dan Boyce in Colorado Springs. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Boyce moved to the Inside Energy team at Rocky Mountain PBS in 2014, after five years of television and radio reporting in his home state of Montana. In his most recent role as Montana Public Radio’s Capitol Bureau Chief, Dan produced daily stories on state politics and government.
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