"This is a major concern:" GPS Jammers have potential to cause problems for emergency responders, pilots

NOW: “This is a major concern:“ GPS Jammers have potential to cause problems for emergency responders, pilots

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Many of us use our GPS on a regular basis. Emergency responders also rely on them to save lives. Experts, however, say that the GPS system is very vulnerable and signals can be disrupted.

Experts also say that if GPS jammers get into the wrong hands, they could also cause major problems, even grounding airplanes.

"It is very critical. I mean it's a huge error if you're sending someone to a respiratory distress call and you got a unit that is five minutes away versus you know one that they accidentally send that's fifteen minutes away because they didn't use their resources. It could be a huge error," said Matt Gannon, a paramedic with Bell Ambulance.

Gannon says that if their GPS systems go down, it puts a strain on everyone.

"It's more labor intensive for the crews, the dispatchers, the supervisors and everyone else when the computers go down," Gannon said.

The dependence on GPS goes beyond emergency responders.

"People have built systems around it. Banks and financial networks, communications networks, electricity distributions, and so forth," said Todd Humphreys, an Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Humphrey says the reliance on GPS could come at a cost because GPS satellites are very vulnerable to attack.

"This is a major concern. These signals are so easily disrupted that it occurred to me and other people looking at it at the time that this is a bit of an Achilles Heel for our society," Humphreys said. 

Easily disrupted by simple devices called GPS jammers and they are illegal. GPS jammers are radio frequency transmitters that intentionally block, jam, or interfere with communications such as cell phones, text messages, GPS systems, and wi-fi networks. 

"You can prevent GPS devices from working in your near vicinity so something like 100 feet around you, no GPS receiver will operate properly," Humphreys said.

Humphreys says a GPS jammer caused headaches for passengers and an economic blow to airlines in France when a man left a GPS jammer in his vehicle and boarded a flight.

"The GPS was disruptive across the airport and they shut down flights throughout the morning as they tried to locate the vehicle and they eventually did locate it several hours later, but hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of dollars had been lost by that point in the morning because of canceled flights," said Humphreys.

While the threat is always there because of our dependence on GPS in our everyday lives, Marquette University Cybersecurity Expert Tom Kaczmarek says there are efforts by the government to improve the GPS system.

"There are people investigating techniques that can't be jammed as a replacement but most of those studies are fairly secret because most governments don't want people to know about it until they start using it because they don't want it to be defeated the first day it's out there," Kaczmarek said.

While Gannon is an experienced paramedic who knows the streets of Milwaukee like the back of his hand, he says that for first responders, a downed GPS system could mean more time spent finding the nearest hospital for a patient's specific needs.

"When I'm done on scene, I am able to hit transporting and it will give me a whole list of the local hospitals and the GPS will actually trigger based on the address and it will automatically give me directions to the hospital," said Gannon.

If someone is caught using a GPS jammer, they can face thousands of dollars in fines from the FCC and even possible prison time.

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