GPS antiterrorist tools under fire

As lawmakers consider the use of GPS technologies to keep terrorists from using tanker trucks as bombs, critics say the high-tech solution could do more harm than good.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
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Paul Festa
4 min read
As legislators and law enforcement consider the use of GPS technologies to keep terrorists from using tanker trucks as bombs, critics are driving home the message that the high-tech solution could do more harm than good.

In California, companies that provide global positioning system (GPS) technologies see opportunity in a state homeland security bill working its way through the legislature that would require the use of remote-control devices for vehicles transporting hazardous materials.

Even as California legislators debate the bill, high-tech companies are testing and promoting an array of products they promise can stop an errant truck in its tracks. These include Qualcomm, Satellite Security Systems and HGI Wireless.

But the bill, which would mandate the use of remote-stopping devices, has earned stiff opposition. Critics include not only California truckers who complain a state law would make their fleets less competitive, but also technology experts who say current high-tech solutions could play into the hands of savvy terrorists.

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"Neat electronic schemes and satellite signals...can be used to discourage the amateur hijacker or mad driver who runs away with the truck, but not the professional terrorist who wants a fuel truck for a bomb," said Bill Wattenburg, a California State University professor and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory consultant.

Global positioning systems can pinpoint a device's location on the globe. Security systems then rely on uplink satellite signals or outgoing cell phone calls to transmit that information to a dispatcher or law-enforcement office.

The problem, according to Wattenburg, is that in a terrorist hijacking, those signals might not get to their destination.

"GPS, uplink satellite signals, outgoing cell phone calls, etc., can all be jammed very easily by a terrorist with a $20 device powered by a nine-volt battery," he said. "This is the first thing they will do, and have done."

Supporters of the bill defend the reliability of satellite signals.

"There are dozens and dozens of frequencies that any of these systems could operate on," said Howard Posner, a consultant with the California Assembly Transportation Committee. "And someone wanting to jam the device would have to know which frequency it was on. That could take you hours of going through them one by one to figure out how to defeat it."

Speeding truck-stopping tech
Although truck-stopping technologies have been under review for years, the issue gained new urgency in 2001--especially in California--after a graphic demonstration of the hazards that trucks pose.

In January of that year, a milk truck rammed the state capitol building, killing the driver and singeing the capitol in a gas-fueled fireball. In September, after terrorists flew commercial airliners into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, the nation became acutely aware that terrorists could use conventional transportation fleets as guided bombs.

Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, California Governor Gray Davis established the Governor's Task Force on Safe Delivery of Fuels, chaired by the California Highway Patrol (CHP) and made up of fuel haulers, service station attendants, oil marketers, technologists and others.

The task force is now finishing its tests of a number of different truck-stopping technologies and plans to release its findings in a June report.

"There are literally hundreds of truck-stopping technologies in the state, nationwide and worldwide," said Stan Perez, deputy chief of the CHP in Sacramento. "We've looked at a range of them, everything from products out of Israel to our own backyard."

Perez declined to comment directly on criticisms of GPS and other remote-control technologies, saying that the report would address the issue.

"As you can imagine with any communications-based technology, there are strengths and weaknesses," Perez said.

One of those weaknesses, according to Wattenburg, is that satellite signals have a tendency to get lost--or jammed.

Wattenburg described a demonstration for the CHP performed last year by a "well-known major company" whose GPS truck-stopper was supposed to let a dispatcher in San Diego stop the truck remotely.

"The truck just kept going when they sent a signal to stop it," Wattenburg said. "The signal was lost in the local noise, I imagine--very embarrassing. But it would be just as embarrassing if they tried to stop a professional hijacker who knew how to jam the satellite signal anywhere--and they do.

Hands-on solution?
Wattenburg, who holds a patent for a home-alarm system that works over house electrical wiring, has a relatively low-tech solution for truck-stopping. The $200 Wattenburg Truck Stopping Device can be operated remotely, via a radio signal.

But it's primarily designed to be activated "manually" by a police vehicle that rams the device twice from behind to activate the truck's air brakes.

That "hands on" approach draws criticism from vendors of the satellite-based systems, who say it needlessly endangers law-enforcement personnel.

"Anyone who asks a law-enforcement person to ram their car into the back of a truck not once but twice--you really have to take (Wattenburg's) naysayer reputation into question," said John Phillips, president of San Diego-based Satellite Security Systems.

Phillips, who said his company has successfully field tested its GPS-based truck-stopper numerous times, dismissed concerns about signal-jamming as "theoretical."

"We protect our technology, and we take all the protections necessary," Phillips said of the jamming issue. "It's a risk that we understand and are comfortable with."