(CBS) — For most people, GPS is just about getting driving directions, but it is much more than that.
If the GPS satellites were damaged, it could take down everything from electricity to transportation to phones.
CBS 2’s Dave Savini investigates the vulnerability and what infrastructure experts and Congress are doing about it.
“This is a major national security issue. This is a major economic issue,” says U.S. Rep. John Garamendi of California, who has been working on this issue.
Garamendi says attacks or interference with GPS satellites could take out 9-1-1 systems nationwide, make ATM machines and credit cards useless, keep airplanes grounded and even disrupt the country’s electrical grid.
“Yes, it can happen and it has happened,” Garamendi says.
Last year a GPS spoofing attack made it appear as though 20 ships in the Black Sea were instead at the Sochi Airport, he says.
Another potential danger is GPS jamming devices, says William Kresse, an anti-fraud expert with Governors State University.
“You jam it around an airport, around a port,” Kresse explains. “Ships won’t be able to dock. Planes won’t be able to land.”
Kresse points to an incident from 2013. A worker evading his employer’s GPS tracker on a company truck used a jamming device while at Newark Airport. The device crippled the airport, and planes could not take off or land.
Kresse says GPS jammers can actually be purchased online.
“I think it would be wise to regulate the use and sale of GPS jammers,” he says. “They are being abused for this reason.”
GPS jammers, he says, can shut down alarm systems on ATM machines and create havoc on financial markets.
“At the end of the day, it’s the biggest single point of failure,” says Caitlin Durkovich, who was Assistant Secretary for Infrastructure Protection with the Department of Homeland Security during President Obama’s administration.
“We are one of the only countries in this world that does not have a terrestrial backup system,” Durkovich says.
Countries like China and Russia have backup systems in case of attacks or other failures. The United States does not. Experts say creating a backup system could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but not constructing one would cost even more.
“It would cost us billions of dollars every day that a GPS shutdown or jamming occurs,” Kresse says.
Kresse says protections have been added to harden the signal on newer military satellites.
Rep. Garamendi is working to get the Defense, Transportation and Homeland Security Secretaries to create a backup system.