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The Global Positioning System Resets


It's Y2K for GPS. The Global Positioning System was designed with a limit for the number of weeks it could count. Every 19 years, the program reaches that limit and the count resets. That happens tonight. What might happen tonight? Frank Cilluffo is director of the McCrary Institute for Critical Infrastructure Protection and Cyber Systems. He joins us now from the campus of Auburn University. Thanks so much for being with us.

FRANK CILLUFFO: Thank you, Scott. My privilege.

SIMON: Will anything happen?

CILLUFFO: You know, that's something we don't have a clear picture on. I think by and large, most people are quite confident. No need to panic at this stage. The government has been speaking to industry that are dependent upon GPS for the past two years now. And actually, this is the second time we'll go through a rollover. The first one occurred in 1999. What's different between today and then is our exponential growth and dependence upon GPS. You've got billions of devices now connected to GPS, so obviously, dependence is much greater.

SIMON: Most of us obviously encounter it using GPS if we're trying to get somewhere, but I gather it's key to things like communications and the power grid, even finance.

CILLUFFO: Absolutely - basically all of our critical infrastructure. It's probably the most significant interdependency to critical functions - time, that is, and precise time. Billions of transactions clear daily, all of which are time-stamped and in all of the global markets. The electric grid is dependent upon GPS. Navigation obviously is as well. It is one of these cross-cutting interdependencies that critical infrastructure is completely reliant upon, not to mention individuals. Anyone who's a parent - I'm sure they've heard, are we there yet, and, what time is it - something I've heard many times from my kids over the years. So it touches pretty much everyone.

SIMON: Is the system secure?

CILLUFFO: You know, GPS - it's cheap in cost. It's quite efficient, but it is vulnerable. It's vulnerable to jamming. It's also vulnerable to spoofing, where you can insert bad data into the system to cause the system to do something it wasn't intended to do. The system is - handled itself incredibly well. But our dependence has become almost that of a single-point failure that we need to be looking to alternatives to GPS. We need to be investing in new technologies. And this is something the Department of Defense and DARPA in particular have been keeping their eyes on the ball for quite some time 'cause they, too, are concerned that weapons systems and logistics may not work as advertised in the event of a crisis.

SIMON: So if something happens, when will we know?

CILLUFFO: The actual rollover itself is at 11:59 Greenwich Mean Time, 7:59 p.m. East Coast time. So I think there'd be a clear indicator. If something is askew, you'd find out relatively quickly. But the thing to keep in mind here is modern systems and modern devices, receivers and the like - they're actually moving to a 13 binary bit system. So in other words, right now, the storage space is able to maintain 1,024 weeks. Going forward, hopefully we don't have to worry about this for another 157 years.

SIMON: Oh, all right. Well, I'll take those odds.

CILLUFFO: There's some good news there. Same here.

SIMON: Frank Cilluffo of the McCrary Institute for Critical Infrastructure Protection and Cyber Systems. Thanks so much for being with us, and may all your rollovers be completed.


CILLUFFO: Very good. May the Force be with us. Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.