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Navy Accidentally Jammed GPS System in San Diego

GPS system signals are everywhere and the technology is used for literally thousands of applications, not just navigating drivers on the road.  GPS technology is used to land airplanes, control financial services such as ATMs and stock trading,  navigate ships and cargo, synchronize data on wireless networks, manage loads on power grids, etc.

Jamming the GPS system can wreak havoc on society in literally thousands of ways. Ways many people are not even aware of.

According to an article recently printed in the New Scientist, a British magazine, a global positioning system outage happened because the Navy accidentally jammed GPS signals in downtown San Diego in 2007.

New Scientist magazine wrote in its March 2011 edition: “It was just after midday in San Diego, California, when the disruption started. In the tower at the airport, air-traffic controllers peered at their monitors only to find that their system for tracking incoming planes was malfunctioning. At the Naval Medical Center, emergency pagers used for summoning doctors stopped working. Chaos threatened in the busy harbour, too, after the traffic-management system used for guiding boats failed. On the streets, people reaching for their cellphones found they had no signal and bank customers trying to withdraw cash from local ATMs were refused.”

The problem with the article in New Scientist is that alot of what it reported wasn’t true. Although the Navy did admit to accidentally jamming GPS signals in San Diego in 2007, the outcome wasn’t anywhere nearly as catastrophic as the magazine made it out to be.

The story of the San Diego incident appears to have first been made public by a Coast Guard navigation official at a GPS conference in 2007. However, to my knowledge, there wasn’t any mention of the event in the local San Diego media back in 2007.

This month, June 2011, an article in the Voice of San Diego analyzed the assertions made by New Scientist magazine. The writer’s research confirmed that the Navy did accidentally jam the GPS system around downtown San Diego in January 2007. But the New Scientist story overstates its impact.

For example, the air-traffic control system didn’t malfunction, based on a report that the FAA sent to the Coast Guard a day after the GPS incident. It says there was no disruption to air traffic control. Coast Guard vessels did report a loss of GPS service,  but there was no widespread “chaos” in the harbor, as New Scientist had reported.

Additionally cell phones didn’t actually stop working. According to Gene Schlechte, a division chief at the Coast Guard Navigation Center,  two cellular phone network operators lost GPS signals from their cell towers in downtown San Diego, but switched to other ways of synchronizing their services. “Neither cell phone network operator reported any loss of cell service to their customers,” Schlechte said.

Schlechte also said the GPS jamming incident shut down a hospital paging company’s services for about 30 minutes, but he declined to identify the company.

No one else has confirmed or denied any of the other effects of the GPS jamming incident described in the New Scientist article – like whether ATMs stopped working.

About GPS Jamming

GPS system signals are pretty weak, so it’s fairly simple for them to be jammed. Some people fear that the use of GPS jammers is increasing and the technology is becoming more popular. Jammers transmit a low-power signal that creates signal noise and fools a GPS receiver into thinking the satellites are not available.

It’s easy to see how these devices can wreak havoc when they get into the wrong hands. Several incidences have been reported in the US and Europe.