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Keeping precision time is a growing concern with risks

Keeping time is a growing concern and we need to be alert to the risks
(Image credit: Pixabay)

When the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve, there were many of us who were glad to see the end of a difficult year. But very few people understand what dictates when that clock should chime or, indeed, how we, as a society, tell the time.

Being able to precisely agree the time, globally, is a critical factor to the way the modern world operates. The energy grid, banks, modern communication, our food supply chains, and many of the services that we use every single day are all reliant on being able to accurately and consistently tell the time in a way that reliably matches with other clocks all around the world. And the degree of accuracy is critical. Precision timing allows us to guarantee that a clock in San Francisco matches a counterpart in Melbourne, not just down to the second, or even tenths of a second, but within billionths of a second.

For example, in the world of financial services, that degree of accuracy allows institutions to agree when a transaction took place. And it is not only vital for high frequency traders and stock trading exchanges, it supports some of the basic infrastructure needed for even small card payments to take place. Similarly, electricity generation stations synchronize outputs based on accurate timing, maintaining the constant flow of electricity through our systems. Even the very website you’re reading this on is being served to you by an internet that needs highly accurate timing to function.

Precision timing

Finance, electricity and telecoms are all examples of critical national infrastructure that must be safeguarded. Professor Bryn James of the UK government’s Defense Science and Technology Laboratory laid out these risks in a recent lecture to the Royal Aeronautical Society, “Everybody who does anything in Western civilization is dependent… on precision timing,” James warned.

The way this system has historically operated is through satellite timing systems, linked to GPS satellites. Not only do these systems deliver the pinpoint accurate location information that helps businesses, consumers and many more find their way around, but these same signals keep vital systems all over the globe fully synchronized.

It has been an excellent system, but it is not without problems. For starters, a reliance on space technology generates vulnerabilities that we cannot control. From the weather to space debris, these uncontrollable forces can disrupt some of the basic tools of modern civilization.

But it is not just natural forces that have the power to disrupt time – the reliance on satellite navigation systems also generates risks. It is not hard to search on the internet and find equipment designed to “spoof” or disrupt GPS tracking, and in doing so, also disrupt the signals that not only dictate precision timing but navigation as well. This technology can be cheap and used by anyone, from organized criminals to the tradesman who wants to deceive an employer tracking their location or activity.

One such incident in 2012 saw the driver of a pickup truck unintentionally cause significant disruption at Newark Airport in New Jersey, with a portable jamming system interfering with a newly installed GPS-guided landing systems each time he would pass by the site on a nearby highway.

These devices act to disrupt communication between satellites and local GPS equipment. The smallest can affect hundreds of meters, and the largest could have a reach of up to several hundred kilometers. If you are caught in that zone, and reliant on a satellite signal for precision timing or navigation, this has the potential to be catastrophic. And the economic costs would be significant, too. A government backed study from London Economics estimated that sustained disruption to existing satellite navigation capabilities could cost the UK economy £1 billion per day.

As Professor James has asserted, this is a growing risk, and we all need to be aware of it.

Atomic clocks

The good news is that the British government is doing an excellent job of getting ahead of the game on these risks. In February last year, the UK announced a £36 million investment in a new, world-first National Timing Centre with multiple atomic clocks scattered across the country. These systems are designed with redundancies and multiple fail-safes to keep Britain ticking, including a wide range of different methods to secure reliable timing if satellite signal is disrupted. It is a landmark effort that shows tremendous leadership and forethought, an excellent example of the kind of risk management that should be replicated globally as we seek to protect not just our own ability to tell the time, but also to safeguard the global economies that are reliant upon it.

Authorities around the world should be thinking about what they can do to create similar resilience, and businesses also have a part to play here. It is vital that all sectors understand their dependence on undisrupted time, and that they are aware of where their vulnerabilities may lie. Those who run railway franchises, radio stations or video streaming platforms or, indeed, anything reliant on electricity, have a responsibility to make sure that their business recruits and trains staff who can understand these complex vulnerabilities. In all sectors, improving the resilience of our entire economic system could depend on our ability to build on this knowledge and create the contingency systems that keep the clocks working. After all, it’s about time.

  • James Gray, Managing Director, Cyber & Intelligence, Raytheon UK.