As the final BeiDou satellite reaches geostationary orbit, experts in the satnav community worry about security implications of the now officially operational Chinese system. As a two-way rather than a one-way communication system, BeiDou differs in two key aspects from other GNSS: BeiDou can identify the locations of receivers on the Earth’s surface, and BeiDou-compatible devices can transmit data back to the satellites in text messages of up to 1,200 Chinese characters.
China’s government puts its in a rosy light. “In layman’s terms, you can not only know where you are through BeiDou but also tell others where you are through the system,” according to state-owned television.
Others are not so confident of the beneficence. A story on the U.S. government-sponsored Voice of America website quotes Dr. Larry Wortzel, a commissioner of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC). “All cellular devices, as I understand their function, can be tracked because they continually communicate with towers or satellites. So just as here in the U.S., there are concerns that police or federal agencies can track people by their cellphones. That can happen. The same is true of a cellphone relying on BeiDou.”
The two-way communication capabilities could be used in cyberattacks. A 2017 study by the USCC determined that “BeiDou could pose a security risk by allowing China’s government to track users of the system by deploying malware transmitted through either its navigation signal or messaging function (via a satellite communication channel), once the technology is in widespread use.”
The Taiwan government has recommended that its employees not use BeiDou-enabled smartphones for navigation.
According to the Chinese government, BeiDou products have been exported to more than 120 countries. The Nikkei Asian Review found that BeiDou’s satellites were observed more frequently than GPS satellites in most parts of the world. China’s state media Xinhua states that BeiDou has 500 million subscribers for its high-precision positioning services.
China has aggressively promoted greater use of BeiDou, incentivizing other countries along its Belt and Road initiative with loans and free services. According to the VOA, for the past 2½ years more than 300,000 scientists and engineers from more than 400 research institutions and corporations have been involved in BeiDou. Along with 5G, BeiDou is called by Beijing “The Two Pillars of a Great Power.”
Were GPS to be overtaken by BeiDou as the leading satnav system in global use, it could have enormous implications for both the high-tech industry and national security of other countries. “The world may soon be bifurcated into GPS or BeiDou camps,” wrote Heath Sloane in an article titled “Precision Politics” in The Diplomat in April.
The China Satellite Navigation office announced on August 3 that 28-nanometer BeiDou-enabled chips for mobile devices are in mass production and mass manufacturing of high-precision 22-nanometer positioning chips will soon start.