A new automated method of distributing GPS encryption keys

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Canada will be the first allied nation to adopt over-the-air distribution (OTAD), this GPS encryption will protect the CAF’ GPS from malicious behaviour: jamming and spoofing.

“Let’s say I’m talking to another person. To interfere or jam, you would just talk louder than me, and they wouldn’t hear me,” explains Lieutenant-Colonel Pierre Blais, navigation warfare (NAVWAR) lead for Director General Space,

Spoofing is more of a deceptive tactic. “You imitate my voice and you tell the other person something, but there is no way for that person to know it’s not me,” says LCol Blais. “You are getting the wrong information, but you don’t know you are getting the wrong information.”

Choosing not to use it
Some users find the current process required to load GPS encryption keys on a receiving device—whether a handheld device or a vehicle—to be complicated and time consuming. And each device must be manually updated one at a time. As a result many users choose not to use encryption and unwittingly expose themselves to risk.

The efficient and secure method of OTAD of GPS encryption keys for compatible GPS receivers is the collaboration between the CAF, the Director General Space, Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), and the US Department of Defense.

“The information that we get from GPS is very important to almost everything we do, whether it’s navigation or communications,” said LCol Pierre Blais. “If we didn’t implement OTAD, the risk would be that people could be exposed to GPS jamming or spoofing.”

OTAD aims to improve on the current protection against both jamming and spoofing by making it easier to load encryption keys on each GPS device, making the use of encryption more ubiquitous.

Mediating Risk
DRDC’s expertise in GPS and navigation was used to ensure the new method presented no risk to current CAF military GPS users. In August 2014, the Canadian Army and DRDC participated in a one-week trial with the US to test the new method of key distribution.

Who will OTAD affect?

Between 8000 to 10 000 newer GPS receivers, such as the handheld Defence Advanced GPS Receivers, or “DAGR” units the Canadian Army uses, will be able to take advantage of automated distribution of encrypted GPS, with less effort required on the part of users than the previous method. Once a receiver is configured, encrypted keys will automatically update on a monthly basis and will not need to be updated for a year, provided the receiver is allowed to track satellites at least once per month and is not ‘zeroized’, or erased.

Using automated OTAD will mean more devices are likely to be protected by encryption as multiple devices can be updated automatically.

The use of GPS is ubiquitous during operations and having access to trusted position, navigation and timing data is critical to CAF operations.

“You get this trust from the encryption,” said Jeff Bird, DRDC navigation warfare defence scientist. “That’s really important. It allows you to know that you are connected to the real satellites, over an encrypted link.” As a result, the new method stands to increase the security of operations overall.

DRDC’s military grade GPS simulators, which act as artificial GPS satellites, can test any GPS device.

“I think, because of the expertise and the equipment that we’ve developed here to support GPS and Navigation Warfare, this has allowed us to bring this operational capability to the users, to Canada, quicker than other nations,” said Mr. Bird.

“I know many countries would like to have it. Currently we’re the only country outside the US to have access to OTAD,” added LCol Blais. DG Space is engaging with all of the stakeholders and environmental commanders to get the news out about this capability and to ensure the OTAD process is included in future training in support of PNT information assurance.

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