GPS Meltdown: Our Brittle Society

Posted by Alexander Hay

Technology has brought many benefits, but has left us vulnerable

Our society is all too vulnerable to decay and disaster

The media love a scare story, especially if it involves something new-fangled technology that we can fret about. "Its failure could cause loss of life" screamed The Telegraph yesterday, over a report that our dependence on the satellite based Global Positioning System is such that it leaves us vulnerable to terrorists, hackers and malfunctions.

It seems that GPS is all too vulnerable to jamming devices, not to mention solar flares affecting the main satellite. Meanwhile, pampered drivers and others who use the system would be left stranded without the system or given misleading data.

But what such news coverage doesn't mention is that these flaws have always been there. Rather obviously, relying too much on a technology with a clear 'choke point' (in this case, the ephemeral remote nature of an orbital system) is always going to be a bad idea. Not having a backup - which can be simple as a battered copy of the A-Z - will always be a bad idea.

More tellingly, however, this latest media panic belies something that is not newsworthy simply because it hasn't (yet) made an impact on our collective public consciousness - how vulnerable our lives truly are. While we take for granted the many advantages life in 2011 brings us, they also make us vulnerable.

Take electronics. Apart from the concern that our over-reliance on digitisation means data could be lost through 'format obsolesence' (where newer devices can't read older files), electronic devices are also rather sensitive to damage, as those who drop their e-readers down the toilet may soon attest.

In particular, they are vulnerable to electromagnetic pulses that can overload electrical devices, damaging them beyond repair in the process. Indeed, the US Navy is already looking into ways and means of protecting its fleet from such an attack, but hardened circuitry is hardly within the reach of a British public that relies on computers and online/electronic infrastructure. Our entire society could collapse with just one well-placed attack on the national grid.

We are vulnerable in other ways too. While we may avoid wars or disasters, such catastrophes elsewhere in the world would still have a devastating effect on us. For example, if a catastrophe were to befall China or one of the other sources of rare earth materials, then we would lose the ability to manufacture many important devices - no more mobile phones would be the least of our troubles.

Then there is food. Britain only grows enough food to support 61% of its population. A disruption of this vital supply could lead to shortages at best; famine at worst - though at least it would put all the mean spirited whining about obesity into perspective. The British mainland's agriculture is also in an unsafe position, with little funding given towards protecting farmland from flooding. We've never have had it so good, but we're shockingly vulnerable too.

Finally there's oil. Quite apart from it being finite, a petrol-starved society may be closer than you think. War, terrorism, political instability and piracy all threaten oil supplies. If anything, we are even more dependent on oil now than in 1973, when OPEC nearly crippled the West through embargoes. Consider how your food gets to the supermarket; then consider how that will continue without petrol.

Then again, what you're using to read this article - the World Wide Web - isn't secure either. Cyber attacks, as demonstrated by the Stuxnet incident, and the recent actions of Anonymous, will become ever more frequent in years to come, not least with governments setting up their own cyber-warfare divisions. The next big terrorist attack may not involve explosives, but the systematic destruction of a country's IT infrastructure, with all the mayhem that will entail.

Or our government may decide it's in 'the national interest' to pull the plug on our access. Egypt and Syria have proven this is possible, though some information still got through and the economic damage was considerableA great firewall, like that of China, is more feasible, and would allow an oppressive regime to control what's said and where while continuing to keep commercial enterprises (of the kind the regime approves of) up and running.

This isn't a reason to be pessimistic. But as our societies become ever more dependent on technology, a serious debate on how we face up to these challenges is long overdue. A truly advanced society would be able to hold itself together despite adversity, but we seem by contrast to be all too primitive.

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Alexander Hay

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