Disabling the GPS: GPS = Governmental Power Swipe

Jim Amrhein discusses a US government plan to fight terrorism by shutting down the Global Positioning System, tells us why Disabling the GPS would not only be a bad idea, but an impractical one, and explains why he’s worried about the plan.

Humanity is acquiring all the right technology for all the wrong reasons.

— R. Buckminster Fuller, American architect and engineer

Technology is, in large part, the engine of change. For better or worse, it is what moves us forward as a people. But advancing technology is a sword that cuts both ways. With every new gadget or device that comes down the pike to save us time, effort, expense or headaches (or even our lives), there comes a whole passel of possible abuses.

Today’s featured technology of abuse is GPS. As you most likely already know, GPS stands for Global Positioning System. In case you aren’t sure exactly what that means, it’s basically a high-tech method of pinpointing with astonishing accuracy the exact spot a thing or person (like you) occupies on planet Earth using radio signals and a sophisticated network of orbiting satellites.

Originally developed by the military for increasing the precision of troop maneuvers, air strikes and the like, GPS is perhaps the most dramatic example of an ordnance-based technology that has made the jump to the civilian world. Today, Global Positioning technology has become indispensable for mapping, navigation, law enforcement and more. Pilots, rescue paramedics, cops, tanker captains, truck drivers and an endless array of other personnel rely on Global Positioning technology every day – it has become vital to our nation’s commerce and public safety.

But enough of the history lesson. My global (no pun intended) point is this: If the White House gets its way in the so-called War on Terror, the Feds will grant themselves more complete control over yet another tool for invading your privacy. They’ll also be increasingly able (and more importantly, allowed by law) to keep track of anyone’s whereabouts, whether they like it or not.

Disabling the GPS: Fear: The first step toward loss of freedom

According to the Associated Press, President Bush has ordered both the DOD and the Department of Homeland Security to develop plans and guidelines for disabling, in whole or in part, the GPS network in the United States in the event of a “national crisis.” The more specific point of this plan, according to an anonymous White House spokesperson, is preventing terrorists from using the navigational technology.

Now, this notion – the idea that government needs more control in order to protect us from the baddies – has become the flagship concept behind numerous infringements of your privacy and property rights in recent years (what’s worse is thatt we’ve let it). And although GPS access isn’t guaranteed by Constitutional amendment, in May of 2000, our government deemed the system a “global entity” and pledged to keep access to it free of charge and unfettered by such constraints as selective availability…

What’s disturbing about the White House’s order is this: Our government has always maintained the ability to shut down the GPS system at any time for national security reasons. Why the need to hold a press conference now articulating the need for specific plans for disabling the system? In other words, why plant the seed of fear in the public’s mind about the misuse of GPS?

Of course, it’s to set the stage for regulation (or worse), but I’ll get to that in a minute…

For now, let’s put politics aside for a moment and consider this intellectually. If you take what the White House says prima facie, (and no one should in this instance), this plan just plain doesn’t make sense. Here are a few reasons why:

  • The only way shutting down GPS might prevent a terrorist attack outright is if we know precisely when such as attack is coming. Even if we did know an at attack was imminent, terrorists would not likely rely on GPS in the midst of elaborate, large-scale actions – they’d already have used the system during the planning stages. Shutting down GPS wouldn’t likely affect their ability to execute an attack in the least.

  • Shutting down the system do AFTER an attack would be pointless – the damage will already have been done, and we’ll need GPS up and running in order to most effectively respond to it. Depending on the nature of the “crisis,” countless lives could be lost if the GPS system is shut down and civilian fire, police, and EMTs can’t coordinate search and rescue efforts, pinpoint victims quickly or locate areas of distress. 

The only other way this vague mandate could be interpreted at face value would be as a plan for keeping terrorists from attacking us DURING a national crisis. Either that, or as a way of keeping them from being able to use the system to do us further harm after a crisis of their own causing – or even to escape. Neither of these notions are really very plausible, and even if they were, they’d make poor justifications for shutting down the best emergency response, tracking, and navigational tool in existence. Here’s why:

  • In order for terrorists to harm us in the wake of a random national disaster (one they didn’t cause or see coming), they’d have to be able to mobilize in very short order. Hounded as they are by the FDI, DHS and other law enforcement, it’s just not a tenable notion that terrorist cells here in the U.S. could “scramble” fast enough to justify limiting our own ability to effectively render aid in a crisis.

  • While it’s possible that GPS could help terrorists execute follow-up attacks in especially vulnerable areas, this hasn’t been their M.O. in any attacks I’ve read about worldwide. Typically, they’re in and out with a big chaotic bang, then off somewhere shooting AK’s into the air and Hi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-ing at their brazen blow against the infidels. Also, the terrorists in question have shown a distinct propensity toward self-sacrifice – rendering moot the notion that GPS could aid in their “escape.”

Beyond all of this, hindering our nation’s ability to travel, ship goods, plan and execute public services, and recreate (all things that would happen en masse by shutting down the GPS) would give terrorists exactly what they want most from any attack: A measurable blow to our economy and commerce, and a major, demoralizing impact on our private lives. The knowledge that we’ll flick off the GPS “switch” and disrupt our lives and livelihoods every time they strap on a dynamite suit or mail a powder-filled envelope will only encourage MORE attacks to occur.

Look, I’m not trying to play armchair-quarterback in the War on Terror, but it should be clear to anyone with half a brain that shutting down the GPS system for any reason except to prevent an imminent terrorist attack is a bad idea. Which leads me to wonder…

What’s the REAL reason the government would want to start wrapping its tentacles more tightly around GPS – using fear-driven concepts like “national crisis” and “terrorism” to sell this authority to the public? I can think of two, actually. Here’s the first…

Disabling the GPS: Taxation without justification?

The focus on Global Positioning Support stems from President Bush’s new space policy, signed just last month. It designates GPS as “critical infrastructure” for the U.S. government, the same basic heading that things like roads, waterways and borders fall under. Though I have no hard information on this, I’d be willing to bet that re-classifying GPS in this manner would open the door for all sorts of new regulation – like taxation or usage fees.

This makes sense to me in light of the weak “national crisis” justification for tightening control of the system. I mean, they wouldn’t likely come right out and say they were going to find a way to tax the technology, would they? Keep in mind that many on The Hill have been salivating for years over the notion of finding new ways to tax and regulate the Internet, why should GPS be any different?

Supporters of broad, yet ill-defined government powers (like, say, the Patriot Act) will argue that since GPS is the property of the Department of Defense, the administration in power has every right to regulate it in any way it sees fit – and that I should just shut up and be grateful that I can use it at all…

This is one way of looking at it, but let’s not forget that it’s OUR TAX DOLLARS that pay for these advancements, classified or not – they’re ours, yours and mine, especially the ones that save (and improve) lives every day, like GPS. As I said above, I have no hard information that simple revenue is the administration’s goal here. But I almost hope it is, because the OTHER reason I can think of for ratcheting up the regulation of GPS is far scarier than parting with a few bucks in satellite “tolls.” Keep reading…

Disabling the GPS: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t watching

In the beginning of this essay, I touched on how technology enables advancements in security – but at a major cost in terms of personal privacy. Not to sound too Orwellian, here, but seizing greater authority to control the GPS system opens the door to what may soon amount to continuous surveillance of everyone.

Case in point: Cars equipped with OnStar and other GPS navigation options are increasingly popular, as are satellite-based anti-theft systems. The whole point of these devices is that they can track you wherever you go. Now imagine a day in the not-too-far-distant future when ALL cars feature these services as standard equipment (GM’s entire product line will in 2007)…

Further, suppose the government’s plans for regulating GPS as “critical infrastructure” include provisions for monitoring people’s day-to-day movements – for security purposes, of course (wink). It’s conceivable that anywhere you go in a car, the Feds will know about it. This kind of thing is already happening, but on a private level (thereby skirting Constitutional quagmires). I read somewhere recently that rental car companies use their cars’ satellite navigation systems to track their vehicles at all times and levy penalties (or call the cops) against those that drive where they shouldn’t – like across state lines.

This kind of involuntary (and unlawful) surveillance won’t be limited to cars, either. New cell phones increasingly feature a GPS component. The two technologies are so similar as to be easily linked, and that’s exactly what’s happening. Soon, every cell phone out there (maybe even every cell phone signal) will be track-able. In one likely future, as long as you’ve got your phone on you, they’ll be able to home in on your exact location.

What comes after that? Permanent GPS under-the-skin implants? Don’t laugh – there’s already a rice-grain-sized, programmable implant with health information on it currently in use in Brazil and other places…

Look, if all of this sounds like some paranoid delusion out of a Philip K. Dick story (read Minority Report – or see the movie), consider this: 10 years ago, did you really think there’d be stoplight and highway cameras enforcing moving violations? Did you think you’d be under constant surveillance at the shopping mall? Could you have conceived that cameras on street corners would be watching your every move – or that near-silent police drone aircraft would be looking down on you? Did you think your rental car would be keeping track of every place you go, every stop you make? Did you imagine that every time you went to pick up your loved ones at the airport, your face would be snap-shotted, analyzed, fed into a computer, and recorded in a file somewhere forever?

Probably not, yet all of these things are happening right now. Is it really so inconceivable that in another 10 years (or less), every step you take and every call you make will be a matter of permanent record – especially now that you can see the first steps toward that possible end being taken?

What shakes me up even more than how often I’m on “candid camera” nowadays is the fact that there doesn’t seem to be much of a mainstream dialogue about this coming boom in surveillance of all types – and that people don’t realize that at the heart of it, such things are patently unconstitutional. My biggest fear is not that all of this will happen, but that it’ll happen under the radar…

That instead of becoming the biggest privacy and personal freedoms debate in our country’s history, it’ll slip into both the official policy and the public’s acceptance of their own governance as unobtrusively as the technology itself does its devious job.

Always “navigating” toward freedom,

Jim Amrhein
Contributing Editor,
Whiskey & Gunpowder
February 8, 2005