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UK Government responds to GNSS dependence - call for action

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There has been much hype in the GNSS community around a recent report from the Government’s Office for Science (GO-Science) that investigated the dependencies of the UK’s critical services to satellite navigation technology, specifically Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), such as the American GPS system. The report called for some action and with typical British understatement and quiet resolve, things are happening.

Blackett review process

The report was the output of a Blackett review process, which means it is an expert-led, independent study to answer specific scientific or technological questions, and to inform policy-makers. These types of review are named after the physicist Patrick Blackett and are usually of 3-9 months duration with anywhere from 10-20 experts investigating the questions posed.

The particular review in question also contained a Foreword from a Minister. This does not convey any special status upon the report as such, but it has meant that internally to the UK Government the report has gained a significant amount of visibility.

Magnifying glass with the word review in different fonts and a central one in red.

Key findings and recommendations

This article outlines the report, the key findings and the recommendations but also addresses what happens next, which is ultimately the call to arms of the report – take action.

It is important to note and keep in mind when reading the report, that it is aimed at informing policy makers (often not technical experts) therefore it is not a detailed technical analysis of GNSS.

It will not be any surprise to many people familiar with GNSS that almost every part of our daily lives involved the use of this satellite technology, in fact the use of it is more widespread than most people realise.

  • Chapter 1 - of the report gives a useful overview of the breadth of applications; from military uses to cycling, landing aircraft, delivering food, civil engineering, managing our ports or navigating ourselves on our smartphones.
  • Chapter 2 - discusses why we should be concerned about our dependency; it assesses threats and vulnerabilities of and to GNSS systems. This is not something to fear - as the cyber security world knows all too well no system is truly secure against every threat - but having knowledge of where the threats and vulnerabilities are is key to understanding your dependency, and protecting against them. Awareness and understanding of the use of GNSS, its strengths and weaknesses and the benefits it can bring are a common theme throughout the report without being sensationalist.

Cybersecurity image showing a blue padlock and three red keys on a data background.

  • Chapter 3 - looks at what are termed critical services and analyses the dependencies that these services have upon GNSS. GNSS can provide position and time information and can enable navigation and system synchronisation as part of wider applications, often with the user not being aware that they are in fact using data determined from satellite signals broadcast from space.
  • Chapter 4  - now assesses the available mitigations that if implemented would reduce dependency on GNSS and improve resilience and/or robustness. The key point from this chapter is no single mitigation technology can protect GNSS in all applications. A layered approach, application by application is required to deliver a resilient or robust system. As a consultant for the US Department for Homeland Security recently noted Defense-in-Depth. This links to the previous chapters, as users, designers and specifiers of systems need to have understanding of their use of GNSS and where that data subsequently is used throughout their system, to be truly protected.
  • Chapter 5  - addresses aspects of how to specify systems in a common way, how we would be able to test and prove systems are resilient and robust against the threats and what regulations and standards exist and their relevance to reducing our dependence. Use of common terminologies across departments can be particularly helpful in being able to give critical service providers assurance that the products they are buying are fit for their job.

Earth's horizon with satellites above beaming down data.

Common themes

In total, the report makes 12 core recommendations with additional suggestions dotted throughout the review. The recommendations do have a common theme; that our GNSS awareness is out of step with our dependence to GNSS and that our knowledge of the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of GNSS should be better.

Without simply creating a list from the report itself, the recommendations can be grouped into some simple sub-sets; improving awareness, improving the legal mechanisms and improving our technical expertise.

  • First - ensure that across government and the critical services in the UK, the risks, hazards and likelihoods of problems with GNSS are better understood, which leads to being able to make judgements on overall dependence based upon hard evidence. Sometimes a risk is acceptable therefore, a decision that no further action is needed can be made, but that decision needs to be understood and reviewed from time to time.
  • Second - focus on having the right legislative framework in place to protect the spectrum and GNSS devices from adjacent and in-band harmful interference. In this area it is recognised that there are many threats to the GNSS band and the UK should use existing and investigate new legislative measures to continue its efforts to mitigate this form of threat.
  • Third - perhaps the most complex area is around changing the way that the UK government operates with respect to PNT (Positioning, Navigation & Timing) how it pools its PNT expertise and how it can provide the necessary advice to be able to procure and operate trusted, resilient and robust systems (toughen) that use PNT data that reduce the dependence upon a single source. (augment) It is the actions in this area that the discussion about GNSS backups will take place.

These are pretty serious recommendations that perhaps to the lay reader are straightforward no-brainers, but when you analyse the detail they are complex and multi-faceted, especially in a governmental environment that contracts a great deal of its critical services to the commercial sector.

Satellite navigation handset showing direction with a stop watch propped up against the device.

What direct action then can be taken as a result of the report?

The UK government has done a fast job of taking action. I am writing this from the perspective of an insider as it were, and one of the experts on the review panel, but even from the outside, and typically we British do not shout about it, a great deal of action has been taken already:

  • Innovate UK, the UK’s Innovation Agency, has contracted to audit the UK’s PNT testing facilities (recommendation 9) and will report in early April. This will identify our capability in this area and identify gaps and areas for innovation investment (if any).
  • The government continues to understand the impact and likelihood surrounding different forms of GNSS loss.
  • The Cabinet Office have also re-organised PNT governance in the heart of government. The UK already has a structure in the National Security framework that addresses resilience and infrastructure matters across all risks and hazards, but now added to this structure is a new group looking specifically at the Blackett Review [into GNSS dependency] recommendations. This group is empowered at the policy and decision making level to get things done. Reporting into this new group is a second new group, the formalisation of the existing cross-government PNT working group. (Recommendation 7) The existing PNT working group is informal and as noted in the review, not a policy advisory body, but has been instrumental in raising the profile of PNT and the need to protect, toughen and augment GNSS within the UK government.

The formalisation of the PNT group into the PNT Technical Group will address the aspects of improving the technical expertise in our critical services and will consist of experts from government, industry and academia providing policy advice and technical guidance across government. Together these two groups will make a huge difference to the approach and management of PNT across our government and suppliers of services.

One large and one small satellite receivers pointing up into the sky, in green on a dark blue background.

In the few weeks since the review of satellite determined position and time was released, the government has and continues to act. Some would say unusually fast, but this shows how important this issue and the challenges it raises, are being taken.

The author of this article is the Chair of the UK Government PNT Technical group and a member of the expert review panel of the report discussed.


You can follow Andy on Twitter @InnovateAndy

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