Brazil’s dependence on the United States’ Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) System: Geopolitical Risk Analysis


Ericson Scorsim. Lawyer and Consultant in Communication Law. Ph.D. in Law from the University of São Paulo (USP). Author of the Communications Law Collection.

Brazil is a user of the United States GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) technology. It is a technology for the positioning, navigation, and geolocation of people, objects, vehicles, and places. Military agencies developed this technology. And it is currently under the control of the United States Air Force.

It is considered a dual-use technology, that is, with military and civilian application. Thus, the military authorities have allowed its use by civilians. The geolocation system is based on satellite telecommunications infrastructure distributed around the globe. Currently, there is a constellation of 33 (thirty-three) satellites scattered around the globe that guarantee GPS operation. There is a GPS antenna on Ascension Island, located in the Atlantic, that can collect intelligence signals in the region.

On the military side, GPS is fundamental in command and control systems, intelligence, reconnaissance, tracking and surveillance, intelligent weapon positioning, and target location accuracy. On the subject, Graham Allison explains: “Satellites provide a crucial link in almost any U.S. military venture, from alerts on enemy ballistic missile launches to image production and weather forecasts, and operations planning. Global Positioning Satellites are responsible for the accuracy of almost all guided weapons and allow ships, planes, and ground units to know where they are on the battlefield. The United States depends on this technology more than any of its competitors. Without it, the commander-in-chief cannot transmit their orders to the platoons on land, the ships at sea, and everything in between. Anti-satellite weapons range from ‘kinetic’ weapons that physically destroy the target, entangling the orbit with debris, to more discreet systems that use lasers to block satellite signals or ‘overshadow’ them and leave them inoperative”.[1]

It should be noted that GPS has numerous civil applications in the economy: transport (vehicle and cargo tracking), commerce (consumer geolocation for commercial advertising purposes), financial system (controlling user id and digital payments), air navigation, maritime transport (ship navigation, cargo, and fleet tracking), precision agriculture (using GPS-guided drones), geosensing, space, meteorology, railways, mapping, environmental services, public safety, among others.  For example, agricultural machinery has GPS. Without connectivity, however, this agricultural equipment cannot connect to the Internet network. It is possible to make estimates about the agricultural crop through GPS and satellite and, thus, influence commodities’ international prices. As an example, the Brazilian Agricultural Agency (Embrapa) uses earth observation images provided by NASA. The agricultural activity is intertwined with the rural credit system, mediated by technology.

In 2020, the Central Bank of Brazil issued Resolution n. 4796, of 04/02/2020, which deals with procedures for reporting agricultural crop losses and applying for insurance coverage under the Proagro program. It states that in the event of the impossibility of an on-site technical visit, losses may be proven remotely. Thus, the Brazilian Central Bank recognizes the possibility of using “satellite images or other remote sensing tools,” as well as database consultation by systems such as Sisdagro (system to support decisions in agriculture and livestock) of the National Institute of Meteorology (INMET) and the Embrapa’s Temporal Vegetation Analysis System (SAT). 

In short, aerospace technologies have a significant impact on Brazilian agriculture. That’s why care must be taken when it comes to protecting Brazil’s agricultural data.   The European Union is adopting rules for agricultural data protection to avoid unfair competition for its farmers. Another application of GPS is the use of technology in planning the opening of retail stores. The number of people circulating in a given geographical area of a city is measured to verify the region’s economic potential.

The GPS is fully compatible with mobile telecommunications infrastructures by mobile phones. The U.S. Air Force has projects to advance the efficiency of the GPS system and mobile-cellular networks. Thus, any mobile phone on the globe may be located by GPS. In this aspect, GPS technology is truly relevant to collecting intelligence signals by the U.S. government. Frequently, in conflict areas, the GPS signal is interfered with by denial of access to services.  These are the systems of countries allied to the US GPS: the European Union’s Galileo system, Japan’s GZSS, India’s Navic. In 2018, the FCC authorized the provision of Galileo services in the United States. The United Kingdom is studying the creation of its own satellite navigation system. Systems not aligned with the United States: Russia’s GLONASS and China’s Beidou. Brazil does not have its own satellite positioning system. Thus, it is a mere user of the United States GPS system. Therefore, there are geopolitical risks for Brazil in the adoption of US GPS technology. Simply put, the risk is that the United States may, for various reasons, decide to deny access to the GPS system at some point. Plus, there are risks of economic and military espionage by the GPS system. Also, Brazil will depend on access to the US GPS technology for its military operations. For Brazil to have full technological sovereignty, it must adopt its own satellite geopositioning system. Otherwise, technological dependence will mean restrictions to international competitiveness and even risks to national defense.

Hence, Brazil needs new geostrategy regarding satellite positioning and navigation technology, intending to build its own domestic system. The Brazilian nation will be grateful! 

[1] Allison, Graham. A caminho da guerra. Os Estados Unidos e a China conseguirão escapar da Armadilhas de Tucídides? Rio de Janeiro: Intrínseca, 2020.
Original: Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

Ericson M. Scorsim

Lawyer and Consultant in Communication Law. PhD in Law from USP. Author of the Ebooks Collection on Communication Law with a focus on topics on technologies, internet, telecommunications and media.