What is GPS Spoofing – How Location Tracking Can Turn Bad
By Nick Anderson 4 minutes
GPS is one of the many innovations that have changed the world for the better. So many things in the world rely on the GPS today that it’s impossible to think of a time without it.
Ride-hailing services rely on the estimated time of arrival and precise coordinates for a smooth journey. A food delivery service relies on the same. A ship sailing in the open sea trusts the GPS coordinates to arrive at the destination without getting lost.
But what if the technology meant to deliver accurate data to get things done is disrupted?What if your device such as a cellphone or car navigation system was fed false location information? That’s what we will in our blog.
GPS stands for Global Positioning System. It’s a network of satellites operated by the United States. The satellites provide position and time so that systems on earth can translate them in real-time and deliver accurate information to the user.
However, GPS is a bit of a misnomer when we talk about satellite tracking in the broad scope. Actually, GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) is the term to describe the navigation systems available to us worldwide. GNSS includes multiple satellite systems, such as GLONASS (Russia), Galileo (Europe), BeiDou (China), and GPS (United States).
The network of different satellites ensures that if one is temporarily unavailable, it will not affect our daily operations.
How GPS Spoofing Works
GPS – or GNSS – ensures several factors for coordination. It must calculate the receiver’s position and send data without interruption while ensuring the integrity of the data.
As the name implies, spoofing delivers fake signals that mislead GPS receivers. The transmission of signals occurs nearby and is not something that’s achieved by hacking a satellite. In GPS spoofing, the transmitter nearby tries to beat satellite transmission with a stronger signal. The transmission coming from the attacker influences the GPS receiver to pick up. It is due to Attenuation that affects the signals coming from the satellite. The signals start out strong but become weak due to geo-disturbances by the time they reach the receiver.
You could be at the coffee shop in a mall but the GPS location on your phone could show you to be in a street or somewhere in a different part of the world. It could even alter what time you’re in; teleporting you instantly to the year 2050, for example.
Researchers at the University of Texas conducted an experiment by spoofing the GPS of a ship. It was an ethical environment. The researchers had received permission from captain of the ship known as White Rose. The captain witnessed the GPS system under the influence of the researcher’s spoofing. It leads to a conclusion that is nothing short of a nightmare. Imagine if someone had really spoofed the location of a ship carrying passengers or a vessel with millions of dollars worth of goods.
GPS spoofing is not limited to just commercial services, it can also affect military equipment, such as drones. A wrong GPS coordinate could send the drone off-course and potentially into enemy territory.
Worth noting is that GPS Spoofing is not the same as jamming the signals. Both achieve some degree of disruption, but the latter blinds the receiver completely, while spoofing sends fake coordinates.
Contrary to what you might be thinking, GPS spoofing does not require expensive equipment. A couple of hundred dollars and you’ll have a device capable enough to spoof nearby GPS. In that yacht example above, the researchers used equipment worth only $2000. Today, it costs a lot less.
Navigation beacons on land can act as backup to prevent GPS Spoofing to some degree. The United Kingdom government announced its plan to support ground-based eLoran system to deliver just that. Cesium and Rubidium clocks also serve as a backup where such solutions are not available. A GPS firewall can actively match the signals to root out the fake GPS signals.
However, you as a commercial user, have little ways to prevent GPS spoofing on your device. On your smartphone, you can switch to Wi-Fi-based location tracking instead of GPS.