GPS – Risks of Jamming and Spoofing Explained

You probably use GPS every day without thinking about it, whether on your smartphone, in your car, or even on a plane. This satellite positioning technology, along with its cousins like GLONASS, Galileo, and Beidou, has become so common that we almost forget they are vulnerable. And when I say vulnerable, I’m not talking about a bug or a software crash, no. I’m talking about real threats that can make your GPS go completely haywire!

You see, GPS relies on ultra-weak radio signals emitted by satellites thousands of kilometers away. To give you an idea, it’s like trying to hear someone whispering to you from the other end of a stadium during a rock concert! Suffice it to say, it’s chaotic trying to hear anything.

So, it doesn’t take a genius to understand that it’s easy to drown out the GPS signal in a big radio noise. This is called jamming. With just a few watts, you can render GPS unusable within a radius of several kilometers! You don’t need a PhD in electronics, a little homemade tinkering can suffice. Of course, it’s completely illegal, but that doesn’t stop some from having fun doing it.

But why jam GPS? Well, in case of conflict, for example, it’s very handy to prevent the enemy from knowing where they are and where to shoot their missiles and drones. That’s actually what’s happening around Ukraine right now. Jamming zones appear regularly, making air navigation hazardous.

But jamming can also serve less warlike purposes. Take China, for example, where it’s said that advertising companies jam the GPS of their competitors’ drones during air shows to make them lose control and ruin the spectacle! High-level competition, no pun intended.

And the collateral damage in all this?

Because, let’s face it, we don’t just rely on GPS to know if we should turn left or right at the next intersection. Mobile phone networks also use it to synchronize their relay antennas. So, when GPS goes haywire, the entire 4G/5G network can go haywire!

But if you think jamming is already heavy stuff, wait till you discover spoofing! This is the next level. Spoofing is a technique that allows you to send fake GPS signals to make your receiver think it’s somewhere else. It’s like if someone changed the road signs to make you believe you’re heading south in France, while you’re actually driving north.

Of course, generating a believable fake GPS signal is much trickier than just jamming the frequency. You need to recreate an entire constellation of virtual satellites with the right timings, the right orbits, consistent with each other. A real craftsman’s job! But once it’s done, imagine the potential for mischief! You could make a passenger plane land off the runway, guide a military drone into enemy territory, or send a ship crashing onto reefs. It’s chilling…

Fortunately, there are countermeasures to toughen up GPS receivers against these attacks: using directional antennas that filter signals not coming from the sky, detailed signal analysis to detect inconsistencies and suspect satellites, cross-referencing with other sensors like inertial navigation systems. The military version of GPS already has a lot of protections, including encryption.

But for the public GPS in our smartphones and cars, we’re still far from there. Except for a few high-end models, most of them accept pretty much anything that looks like a GPS signal, and that needs to change, fast!

Scott Manley, an expert in the field who you may know from his rocket videos, dives deeply into these issues in a well-documented video on the subject. Not only does he analyze the risks of jamming and spoofing, but he also examines possible countermeasures, like the use of directional antennas and detailed signal analysis to detect inconsistencies. I’ll share the video here; it’s worth a watch:

While we may be fans of new technologies that make our lives easier, we must remember that they have their flaws and limits. That doesn’t mean we should go back to good old Michelin maps and compasses, but a little refresher in old-fashioned navigation wouldn’t hurt!

Personally, the next time my Waze app tells me to turn left straight into a lake, I’ll be skeptical!

Mohamed SAKHRI
Mohamed SAKHRI

I'm the creator and editor-in-chief of Tech To Geek. Through this little blog, I share with you my passion for technology. I specialize in various operating systems such as Windows, Linux, macOS, and Android, focusing on providing practical and valuable guides.

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