Right place, right time

Right place, right time

Richard Hoptroff, CTO and co-founder at Hoptroff discusses the increasing importance of place and time in crucial infrastructure.

You have to look no further than front page news to know we have a problem with satellite security, with GPS looking increasingly vulnerable to spoofing and outages. It is time to catch up and ensure our critical infrastructure is in step with the fast changing world it operates in. 

Highly accurate timing, down to the microsecond, has previously only been utilised by a select few industries, such as Financial Services, but has the potential to go much further. Where regulations such as MiFID II, in Europe, and CAT in USA mandate clocks to be incredibly precise, timing has occupied a vital place in infrastructure considerations.

However, a new appetite for timing has emerged as our reliance on virtual systems has rapidly accelerated and there is greater concern regarding infrastructure resilience and its intersection with location data.

This shift was made even more concrete with the publication last month of the UK government’s ambitious Geospatial Strategy. It recognises the need not only to expand our capacity to verify location, but to make existing systems more resilient. 

Why is location data important to navigating the new digital world?

Real time location data has become a pillar of many parts of the digital world. From monitoring pollution levels, to autonomous vehicles and of course, navigation purposes.

Whether you are a pilot flying a commercial plane, or you are finding your way across London to meet a friend for coffee, you are relying on GPS (Global Positioning System) to tell you where you are and how to reach your destination.

In Financial Services GPS is frequently used to send a time feed to servers that handle high frequency trading. If clocks on servers drift and are untraceable back to a verified source of universal time (UTC), conflicts can arise.

Orders can look as if they arrived before they were sent, and there is no way to determine whose time was correct. The regulations stipulate that the clocks on servers must not vary from UTC by less than a millisecond, and in some cases by less than 100 microseconds.

When a single delivery chain might involve many servers and that action is repeated thousands of times, then it is clear how lack of synchronisation will compromise the usefulness of timestamps when you are trying to reconstruct a chain of automated activities after an event. 

It is clear that many industries are highly dependent on accessing accurate location data instantaneously 24 hours a day without interruption. But what happens if GPS goes down?

This is a conundrum governments around the world and the defence sector has been grappling with and has highlighted some gaping vulnerabilities in infrastructure that urgently need addressing. 

Reliance on GPS not only risks compromising all sixteen sectors the US Department of Homeland Security marks as ‘critical’ in the event of a technical failure, but also risks the possibility of malicious and deliberate jamming and spoofing.

This is not just a question of resilient infrastructure, it is a question of national and international security. With accusations just last week of Russian military activities in space, this is wake-up call that our sensitive location data and time feeds must be backed up by more than a single delicate satellite. 

Turning time into place

Traceable timing software solutions can help mitigate these infrastructure vulnerabilities, as well as providing accurate location data.

Traceable time is time that is known to be correct by way of an unbroken chain of comparisons back to the national standards institutes who maintain universal time.

While this has been necessary in other industries for some time, such as telecoms and power generation, it was only with the introduction of the MiFID II regulations that it was applied to digital events. 

Disseminating this time-feed can even be achieved without depending on GPS, by combining three satellites and one terrestrial time source. Customers in any sector can access exceptionally resilient time at low cost. 

This technology can place data in both time and location. Once access to the time feed is established Traceable, place or accurate location data can be ascertained. 

Time and space are inextricably linked. If a server tells some of its neighbours about an event, and the round-trip time of the message is measured and ledgered, we can be confident that the event happened where the server claims it did.

Traceable time offers records that are provably and immutably correct in terms of when, where and to what an event being recorded actually happened.  

Location data is part of the fabric of the new digital world and is vital to many industries. The resilience of this infrastructure must be a central concern as we rely more heavily on virtual systems.

Accurate timing offers the opportunity to both provide accurate location data and make the vital infrastructure we depend on to provide location services more resilient.