Galileo satellite code cracked, provoking EU scuffle

Galileo is an independent alternative to the US-owned Global Positioning System (GPS)

Cornell University scientists have cracked the codes needed to track navigation signals from the prototype Galileo positioning system satellite, leading to a scuffle with the EU-based project, which intends to keep tight control over access.

Earlier this year, a team led by Mark Psiaki, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell and co-leader of Cornell’s GPS Laboratory, devised a way of determining the pseudo-random noise (PRN) codes needed to track its navigation signal, which hadn’t been released at the time.

The team published their findings in the June issue of GPS World.

To Psiaki’s consternation, the “crack” doesn’t appear to sit well with the strict licensing terms the Galileo project is putting on the codes, in an attempt to keep control over which devices are permitted to track Galileo signals.

That’s in spite of the fact that the codes are “open source”, according to Psiaki. “Apparently, they were trying to make money on the open-source code,” he says.

Galileo is backed by the EU as an independent alternative to the US-owned Global Positioning System (GPS), which is primarily intended for the military, and as recently as 2000 only provided limited access to the public. The €3 billion (NZ$6 billion) Galileo project is expected to be in operation by 2010, with the aim of providing better accuracy, improved coverage at higher latitudes and independence from the US system.

While the EU and the European Space Agency are Galileo’s prime movers, the project is three-quarters privately funded and needs to make a profit. The project is planning measures, such as an encrypted version of the service, called Commercial Service (CS), that will deliver improved accuracy — better than 1m, or, with the addition of ground stations, down to less than 10cm.

However, Galileo won’t be strictly fee-based. An Open Service (OS), freely available to any Galileo receiver, will also be provided, with accuracy within 4m. Manufacturers will, however, need to license PRNs from Galileo in order to manufacture OS-capable receivers.

The PRN codes aren’t high-security information, but the experience so far doesn’t bode well for Galileo’s approach to releasing information — or its success in keeping sensitive information secret, according to some observers. “Security by obscurity: it doesn’t work, and it’s a royal pain to recover when it fails,” says security expert Bruce Schneier.

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