Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Thurs 13/7/2006 There are delighted cackles from over the ocean, where Cornell researchers say they've cracked the code for the European Union's new Galileo satellite navigation system. They've certainly cracked something, but it's hard to get too excited about it — while it's true that the Europeans have been keeping that particular code secret and that the Cornell mob had worked out what was going on, it's not true that this has any particular significance for the future of the project.

Thurs 13/7/2006

There are delighted cackles from over the ocean, where Cornell researchers say they've cracked the code for the European Union's new Galileo satellite navigation system. They've certainly cracked something, but it's hard to get too excited about it — while it's true that the Europeans have been keeping that particular code secret and that the Cornell mob had worked out what was going on, it's not true that this has any particular significance for the future of the project.

The code in question is being transmitted by the GIOVE-A experimental satellite as part of the initial testing of Galileo. While the full system will indeed have levels of service accessed through various kinds of encryption – and, like the American GPS system, the lowest level available free to the user — that isn't what's being broadcast at the moment. The only reason it was being kept secret was that we're at the stage in the project where various things are being tried out and, not unreasonably, there's no particular reason to make public exactly what experiments are being done and how. Furthermore, the Cornell findings, while clever, weren't exactly pushing the boundaries: spread-spectrum techniques are well known and documented, and if you know what to look for there's a lot you can find out. Especially when you're dealing with a system that, like Galileo, is designed to interoperate with others.

The real secret about Galileo is "why is it there?". The EU makes a big thing about the business benefits of the system, and indeed there is lots of money to be made through location-based tech, but is curiously unclear about how those benefits will make money come back to the satellite operators themselves. The idea is that you pay for the extra precision of the encrypted signals but, while those are useful for some specialist applications, they do not include the sort of thing that millions of people want. In any case, by combining the free GPS and free Galileo signals, substantial improvements in precision will be available for free.

The answer to the question isn't "to make money", of course. It's "Because it's not run by the American Department of Defense". We're rapidly becoming dependent on GPS for all sorts of essential commercial and practical uses and, while we love and cherish the Americans as friends and allies, the "love many, trust a few, always paddle your own canoe" principle comes into play rather strongly.

Politically, though, you can't say this outright. It's also quite hard to create a European-wide project with significant yearly costs that doesn't have a direct commercial raison d'etre, because it upsets the free market boosters. So you have to get a figleaf from somewhere — but honestly, nobody's going to get too upset if a few American researchers take a peek behind it.

 

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