The Failed Attempt to Destroy GPS

An axe attack in the early 1990s damaged the same network of satellites that helps you map directions today.

On May 10, 1992, the activists Keith Kjoller and Peter Lumsdaine snuck into a Rockwell International facility in Seal Beach, California. They used wood-splitting axes to break into two clean rooms containing nine satellites being built for the U.S. government. Lumsdaine took his axe to one of the satellites, hitting it over 60 times.

They were arrested and faced up to 10 years in prison for destroying federal government property, causing an estimated $2 million in damage. Ultimately, Kjoller and Lumsdaine took guilty pleas and were sentenced to 18 months and two years in prison respectively for an act of civil disobedience they named "The Harriet Tubman-Sarah Connor Brigade."

Acting in a tradition of civil disobedience established by the Plowshares movement while citing the leader of the Underground Railroad and the heroine of the Terminator series, the Brigade's target was the Navigation Satellite Timing And Ranging (NAVSTAR) Program and the Global Positioning System (GPS). Back then, GPS was still a fairly obscure and incomplete military technology, used in some civilian applications (the first civilian GPS device, the Magellan NAV 1000, came on the market in 1988) but far from a mainstream resource. Today, GPS feels almost more intimate than industrial or weaponized.

I tend to look at GPS mostly when I'm looking at myself. Or more precisely, for myself, rendered as a small blue dot on a map on my phone. Generally while doing this, I don't pause to consider how that blue dot on a screen is a function of at network of multi-million-dollar satellites in space sending signals to and receiving signals from my phone (yes, in addition to signals from local wi-fi devices and cell towers, but still: Giant machines in space talk to a tiny phone and that is totally normal and expected). It’s easy to take our machines of loving grace for granted when we experience them mostly as blue dots on tiny screens.

Twenty-three years ago, the Harriet Tubman-Sarah Connor Brigade was thinking about personal relationships to GPS, but more in the context of civilians killed by precision warfare and a population threatened by a growing first-strike nuclear capability. All of this is GPS' provenance. It’s a provenance easily forgotten given its far-reaching influence and impact—not just on navigation but on networks and on networked time. While the Brigade couldn't foresee GPS' temporal impact, their actions are a small but resonant moment in its history, and a reminder of how we neglect technology’s ambivalent histories at our own risk.

* * *

Peter Lumsdaine didn't express any regrets when I contacted him to learn more about the Brigade. He doesn't really share my sense of personal connection to GPS. Even if the technology has more and more civilian uses, Lumsdaine said, GPS remains “military in its origins, military in its goals, military in its development and [is still] controlled by the military.”

NAVSTAR, the Department of Defense program initiated in 1973 responsible for constructing GPS, was originally called the Defense Navigation Satellite System (DNSS) and emerged from work by the Naval Research Laboratory and the Air Force. In addition to using the system for precise missile targeting and military navigation, GPS satellites were equipped with sensors for detecting nuclear detonations around the world starting around 1980. The NAVSTAR architects always foresaw and planned for civilian applications. Initially, civilians had access to Selective Availability, a deliberately distorted and less precise GPS signal. Industries like shipping and aviation were given access to unjammed GPS in the mid-1990s. In 2000, Selective Availability was disabled and from that point on, anyone with a GPS receiver could get location data as precise as the data used for military and missile navigation.

GPS' major media debut took place on the battlefield during the 1991 Gulf War, where GPS-guided cruise missiles took out Iraqi infrastructure and soldiers carried commercial GPS receivers (the system was still incomplete in 1991, and as a result all GPS operations during the Gulf War had to be coordinated within specific time windows to be sure there were enough satellites overhead). When explaining the Gulf War's influence on the Brigade, Lumsdaine noted that "most of the civilian casualties of Operation Desert Storm came after the war because the infrastructure was targeted; the water, the electric lines, the generating stations. GPS was critical for taking out the electric grid of Iraq… with the electricity came repercussions with water filtration plans and so forth." Crippling infrastructure is a long-term attack strategy, and GPS let the military enact it with ruthless precision.

Of course, GPS wasn't the only satellite network that shaped the conflict. The Gulf War is remembered for being America's first real-time war, a military conflict subjected to 24-hour live news coverage thanks to cable networks like CNN using satellite uplinks. The real-time activities satellites facilitated—from real-time war to real-time news—are part of GPS's less recognized but still powerful legacy. It's a legacy that isn't experienced as small blue dots on smartphones so much as the constant need to check those phones. Despite its reference to a science fiction franchise whose entire plot is predicated on time travel, the Harriet Tubman-Sarah Connor Brigade's critique of NAVSTAR didn't—and, frankly, couldn’t—anticipate GPS’ future role as essentially a giant time machine, playing a quiet but crucial role in our perception and experience of networked time.

* * *

Understanding how GPS shapes time requires a detour into the concept of navigation itself. Historically, navigation has always been tied to synchronizing time across distance. For a person to know where she was, she needed to reconcile when she was against a when somewhere else—if it's midnight and Constellation X is 45 degrees off from its position in City Y, she could determine the distance traveled from City Y. For much of the 20th century, City Y was usually Greenwich, England, home to Greenwich Mean Time. In 1972, Greenwich Mean Time was replaced with the formal adoption by the International Telecommunications Union of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which determined time using a collection of distributed atomic clocks. Atomic clocks were already being used in experimental satellite projects prior to the creation of the NAVSTAR program, and all GPS satellites rely on atomic clocks to triangulate location. GPS still functions in a similar way to navigation systems of the past, but time has been abstracted away from the position of stars and down to oscillating atoms instead.

Synchronized time across distance is a dilemma for communication networks as well as navigation systems. All of the seemingly instantaneous services of the internet require timestamps, and figuring out the when of the network depends on a service we mostly know for giving a where to our networked lives. While almost all networked devices have a real-time clock that internally keeps track of time, when that device connects to a network it usually syncs with a time server using the Network Time Protocol (NTP). All time servers rely on a reference clock, a device or source for the most accurate current time. The type of reference clock used can vary (atomic clocks, radio waves), but GPS receivers are one of the commonly used reference-clock sources because of the system's ubiquity and reliability. No real-time without real-space, and vice versa.

The 24-satellite GPS constellation is at an altitude of approximately 12,550 miles. (NASA)

Living in the age of endless real-time often feels more like accelerated time, and living in accelerated time really means living in an age of increasingly precise archives. The difference between the everyday interactions and transactions of the past and the ones we experience now is that, previously, they didn't all come with a timestamp. (Or, if they did, that timestamp wouldn't be accurate down to the level of the microsecond, stored in fragments across multiple data centers, and synchronized across networks.) Precision time accommodates precision logistics, precision financial transactions, and, perhaps it goes without saying, precision surveillance.

When I suggested this connection to Lumsdaine, he was polite. "That was not really in our minds at the time, but I, uh, I see your point." The Brigade’s name had more to do with a deep admiration of Tubman and a desire to tap into a contemporary zeitgeist by citing a popular film franchise. Lumsdaine was initially skeptical of the Terminator films, but watched them at Kjoller's insistence and was moved by their message: “What the film actually says is that our society is plunging towards two things. And one is the takeover of AI and the other is global nuclear war and that people have a responsibility to fight and stop it.”

I'm not sure I agree with Lumsdaine's interpretation, but those would probably be the most resonant themes to an anti-nuclear activist watching Terminator 2 just after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Harriet Tubman-Sarah Connor Brigade didn't seek to free us from the shackles of accelerated time. Still, there is something poetic about how often civil disobedience takes the form of a demand to slow things down, be it traffic on a highway, labor in a factory, or access to a server. It's hard to imagine someone taking similarly visceral action against Google data centers today, or even the NSA's infamous Utah Data Center—not only because of the security around those buildings but because an attack on a single node just isn't an effective tactic.

While searching for information about the Brigade online, I came across an archived Usenet thread that reminded me of debates over another technology currently reshaping time, distance, war, and commerce: drones. Contributors to the thread criticized the Brigade for overemphasizing GPS' military origins and being unable to conceive of the technology as neutral, if not ultimately “for good.” As the FAA introduces proposals for civilian drone policies and industry associations aggressively distance commercial drones from the drones used for targeted killing, the discourse around the future of unmanned systems is similarly contemptuous of any critique that acknowledges the existence of unethical applications.

Today, Lumsdaine views the thread connecting GPS and drones as part of a longer-term movement by military powers toward automated systems. He compared today’s conditions to the opening sequence of Terminator 2, where Sarah Connor laments that the survivors of Skynet’s nuclear apocalypse “lived only to face a new nightmare: the war against the machines.” While we luckily avoided the worst-case scenarios of the Cold War, Lumsdaine explained, the technologies that emerged from it shape today's increasingly decentralized and automated conflicts. It makes a weird sense that the end of history would bring forth conflicts driven by Total Information Awareness, synchronized in what constantly strives to be realer real-time.

The LAGEOS satellite was the precursor to today's GPS. (NASA/Flickr)

An accelerated age often appears to be a more anxious age—every now feels more now than ever, every crisis more urgent than the last. The Harriet Tubman-Sarah Connor Brigade offers a reminder that to some extent, our technological anxieties are the same as they ever were. States continue to build breathtaking killing machines, scrubbing the blood on their hands in the rhetorical lather of efficiency, of promising civilian applications. Resistance to these regimes is marked with ambivalence at the technologies, tactical instruments often mistaken for ideology manifest. Technologies and the power dynamics that shape their use become normalized. The accelerated age buries technological origin stories beneath endless piles of timestamped data.

When people lose sight of these origin stories, they do a disservice to our technologies and to ourselves. Forgetting that we live among dormant killing machines makes it easy to believe that they are merely machines of loving grace and not tools beholden to the power structures that control them, tools that paradoxically become inescapable as they grow more accessible. Recognizing and living with the ghosts in our machines is a precondition of using them honestly and, hopefully, responsibly.

When I asked Lumsdaine what he thought civil disobedience today might look like in lieu of taking axes to server racks he replied, "I think in a general way people need to look for those psychological, spiritual, cultural, logistical, technological weak points and leverage points and push hard there. It is so easy for all of us as human beings to take a deep breath and step aside and not face how very serious the situation is, because it's very unpleasant to look at the effort and potential consequences of challenging the powers that be. But the only thing higher than the cost of resistance is the cost of not resisting."

What Lumsdaine describes as resistance might be as easily called living with ethics, but ultimately the call to action for either term is, essentially, to take time. In the rush of a persistent accelerated now, interruptions and challenges to life in real-time are sometimes necessary in order to ask what kind of future we're building.