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If GPS goes down, more precise clocks could save the day

Beyond pinpointing a geographic location, the Global Positioning System offers another key function that's found in nearly every corner of modern industry and consumer technology — time. GPS systems are used primarily for timing, in order to compute physical positions. And GPS can be found in everyday transactions and devices including ATMs and smartphones.

Now an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense is working on more precise timing that could give the military advantages in geographic positioning, navigation and timing for longer stretches. The research could also have a big impact on many industries including more precise, time-authenticated financial transactions like those used in high-frequency trading.

Beyond military applications, competition and shifting requirements are driving more companies to seek highly precise, time-stamped and sequenced transactions.

"How do you prove, when you pushed 'buy'?" said Robert Lutwak, a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA.

Robert Lutwak with a microscope stage showing the time-keeping microsystems that researchers are developing under his programs.
Source: DARPA
Robert Lutwak with a microscope stage showing the time-keeping microsystems that researchers are developing under his programs.

In cybersecurity and scientific circles, there's a growing desire to become less dependent on GPS for timing and positioning functions. Hackers have become more stealth. And prices for technology including GPS jammers continue to drop.

"GPS is fragile and it's easily jammed," said Lutwak. "Many systems would fail entirely if we were to lose access to GPS."

A key GPS vulnerability is the constant contact required between satellites in space and GPS receivers down on Earth.

Within 30 seconds of a GPS shutdown, for example, a GPS receiver would only be able to specify it was somewhere within an area the size of Washington, D.C., according to DARPA. An hour of GPS shutdown would expand the area of uncertainty to more than the size of Montana.

And you don't need to be a scientist to know GPS can be wonky, especially around tall buildings in big cities. Walk around New York City and sometimes your location isn't reflected on your smartphone app. And gauging altitude is tricky.

"GPS is not good at pinpointing what floor you're on, which is critically important to first responders to a high-rise emergency, for example," said David Howe, a time expert and researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Based in Boulder, Colorado, and now part of the Department of Commerce, NIST one of the nation's oldest physical science laboratories.

"A good clock like a good watch will allow you to get what time it is based on its initial setting and long-term preciseness, even if you're not receiving a synchronized signal all the time," said Howe, who has been a scientist at NIST for 45 years. An avid ham radio operator in his teens, his first work at the institute included tracking bounced signals off the moon to determine its position.

Given GPS vulnerabilities, researchers are developing more reliable, real-time position tracking with signals that would not disappear in blind spots.

DARPA is developing technology that includes high-precision clocks and high-precision navigation instruments that can track physical positions for longer periods of time without relying on external sources such as satellite data. The research push includes more precise atomic clocks.

A clock lesson here. An old-fashioned pendulum clock marks time by counting the resonance — the swinging back and forth — of a pendulum, to keep track of time. An atomic clock uses the resonance frequency of an atom as its resonator. Atom resonances are extremely consistent, which makes atomic clocks so precise.

With a program budget for up to $50 million, DARPA's goal is to design and build a new generation of palm-sized, battery-powered atomic clocks that perform up to 1,000 times better than the current generation.

"All of our modern communications, navigation and electronic warfare systems, as well as our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems, depend on accurate time-keeping," said Lutwak in prepared remarks.

He's overseeing a new DARPA program, Atomic Clocks with Enhanced Stability. "If ACES is successful, virtually every Defense Department system will benefit," Lutwak said. The end goal is to maintain communication and navigation networks for longer than a week in GPS-denied and -degraded environments.

And potential commercial applications for more precise, stable clocks span many industries including telecom, power grids and underwater oil exploration, as well as firefighting and military use.

GPS-stamped transactions

But keep in mind GPS timing technology is still widely used.

Hollywood studios are incorporating GPS to control audio and video data, as well as multicamera sequencing, according to government data.

Among financial trading systems and financial services institutions, more are shifting to precise timing and GPS-stamped transactions, said Andrew Bach, vice president and chief architect of financial services at Juniper Networks. Its portfolio includes network security products.

"Trading systems today are requiring vast sums of data and that data increasingly needs to have a real-time reference," he said. "This is where we start shifting, and precision timing from GPS becomes even more critical," said Bach, in an email to CNBC.

For example, when a business processes a billion transaction messages per second, precise time stamps become incredibly small and valuable. Transactions must be time stamped within one microsecond. "This further drives the need for a very precise, very accurate set of clocks," he said.

Bigger picture, the desire for more precise timing technology is unfolding as cyberthreats grow in scale and sophistication. Details are now emerging about an $81 million cyberheist from Bangladesh's official account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Timing advances and cybersecurity

And in this environment, sequencing of events and precise timing are important variables. Precise timing is especially crucial for organizations that need to integrate records and transactions from multiple physical locations.

"If you don't have good time, you can't construct the timing of the attack," said John Michener, chief scientist at Casaba Security, a cybersecurity consultancy in Redmond, Washington. His resume includes working on compliance and security for financial companies including a large insurance company, a retailer, a regional credit union and Microsoft.

"For high-frequency trading, you need more precision," Michener said.

Going forward in fighting and fending off cyberthreats, timing-related solutions including GPS and atomic clocks ideally all need to be synchronized in the financial industry, said Joseph Loomis, founder and chief executive of CyberSponse, a cybersecurity and automation technology business based in Arlington, Virginia.

Said Loomis, "The evolution of technology is progressing faster than our comprehension."

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