US scientists crack Galileo codes

July 13, 2006

Brussels, 12 Jul 2006

A group of US scientists has cracked the so-called pseudo random number (PRN) codes of Galileo, Europe's first global navigation satellite, despite efforts to keep the codes secret. This may have implications for the EU, which had intended charging 'license fees' for the satellite's services in order to cover some of the costs of this €3.4 billion venture.

Using a satellite dish on their laboratory roof, the team of scientists from Cornell University's Global Positioning System (GPS) department was able to unravel the code from the data being beamed from a prototype satellite currently in orbit, GIOVE-A (Galileo In-Orbit Validation Element-A).

Marc Psiaki, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University and co-leader of Cornell's GPS Laboratory, had tried to obtain the codes directly from the Galileo consortium in January, but without luck. 'Then it dawned on me: Maybe we can pull these things off the air, just with an antenna and lots of signal processing,' he said.

Professor Psiaki's success in cracking the codes of the prototype were irrelevant, a spokesperson for the European Commission told the UK newspaper, the Telegraph, since the final codes for the Galileo system would not only be different, but would be made available by the EU.

But according to Professor Psiaki, this data is open source and therefore not subject to copyright. 'We were told that cracking the encryption of creative content, like music or a movie, is illegal, but the encryption used by a navigation signal is fair game,' he said. The upshot, he claims, is that 'Europeans cannot copyright basic data about the physical world, even if the data are coming from a satellite that they built.' This may mean that future users of Galileo will not have to ask for the codes and could refuse to pay for services, said the professor.

Galileo, which is a joint venture between the European Commission, the European Space Agency (ESA) and private investors, is due to be operational in 2010. Unlike its US counterpart, the GPS system whose signals are free for use worldwide, Galileo is meant to pay for itself by introducing fee-paying services. Applications for which fees are requested will provide, the Galileo consortium says, a quality of service which GPS is unable to provide. The GPS of the future could perhaps offer such services too, but there is no guarantee that they will be free, least of all if GPS would hold a monopoly. In any case, GPS will remain a system conceived primarily for military applications.

More information (Galileo)

More information (Cornell)

CORDIS RTD-NEWS/© European Communities, 2006
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