Students taking classes on the Naval Academy this autumn are being taught celestial navigation for the first time since 2006, and Navy officials admit the curriculum change is at least partly a response to budding fears of cyberwarfare.
The Navy isn’t worried about space alien hackers, but rather exploits that could target any of the 31 satellites that orbit the Earth every day to make the government-run global positioning system, or GPS, accurate within inches.
Celestial navigation was a part of the Naval Academy’s educational curriculum for decades, but the school mostly removed it from class schedules in 2006 as GPS replaced more antiquated technologies, such as the sextant — a mirror-made navigational devices used by explorers for centuries leading up to the cyberage.
“We went away from celestial navigation because computers are great,” Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Rogers, the deputy chairman of the academy’s Department of Seamanship and Navigation, told the Capital Gazette.
“The problem is,” he explained, “there’s no backup” if a computer fails and the sailors can’t do old-school navigation.
“In the event that we had to go into a national emergency, we would probably have to shut the GPS down because it can be used by potential enemies,” retired Navy Capt. Terry Carraway added.
The government’s GPS system can help sailors lost at sea find their way to shore, or identify ship routes to within feet, Lt. Cmdr. Rogers said, adding, “You’re not even in the same ballpark” when compared to what sextants offer.
“If you can use GPS, it’s just so much more accurate,” Lt. Cmdr. Rogers told the paper. But at the same time, he acknowledged: “we know there are cyber vulnerabilities.”
In order to provide the Navy with work arounds for potential mishaps, recruits in Annapolis as well as ROTC students at colleges in Philadelphia, Rochester, New York, and Auburn, Alabama, are also being trained in celestial navigation this semester.
In space, meanwhile, security researchers have already demonstrated that Earth-orbiting satellites are far from being fail-safe. In August, Colby Moore, a researcher with cybersecurity firm Synack, said he was able to intercept and decode unencrypted data being transmitted by Globalstar, supposedly “the world’s most modern satellite network.”
“We rely on these systems that were architected long ago with no security in mind, and these bugs persist for years and years,” Mr. Moore told Wired at the time. “We need to be very mindful in designing satellite systems and critical infrastructure, otherwise we’re going to be stuck with these broken systems for years to come.”
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