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Words to go: GPS tracking security

GPS and location-based services may be some of the most significant recent technological advancements, but they can also put personal privacy in jeopardy.

The Global Positioning System does not just help navigate from Point A to Point B. It provides a reliable and accurate source for synchronizing time and infrastructure, including within the power grid.

GPS relies on a "constellation" of 24 main satellites orbiting Earth that determine the longitude, latitude, speed and course direction of a target. Developed during the Cold War, GPS tracking has come a long way since its invention. Today, the technology is widely used in smartphones and mobile devices and considered invaluable for emergency and military personnel, businesses and individuals alike.  

GPS saves lives in disaster relief, search and rescue efforts and preventing transportation and airspace accidents. It boosts economic productivity across the planet, especially in the delivery, construction, meteorology and agriculture industries. Last but not least, GPS remains a critical element to national security since its introduction in the Cold War.

The reliability and no-cost characteristics of GPS allowed for the development of thousands of applications that can be used in many aspects of a user's life. Given the ubiquity of technologies around the world that use GPS to coordinate location and time, it is easy to imagine the hypothetical chaos that could result from an attack on GPS frequencies. Follow this rundown of risks to the GPS infrastructure to understand the importance of GPS security to your enterprise.

Satellite. A satellite of the Earth is anything that orbits it -- including the moon. GPS depends on a constellation of artificial satellites, each equipped with radio receivers and transmitters, capable of providing coordinated global coverage for devices anywhere on Earth to access time and position services. Currently, thousands of satellites operate in the Earth's orbit for a variety of purposes, including weather forecasting and internet communication and the Global Positioning System.

GPS tracking. GPS tracking refers to the remote surveillance of an entity's or object's location by way of the Global Positioning System. The U.S. government has made commitments to ensure GPS signals in space will maintain accuracy of 25.6 feet according to GPS.gov, but the average user can usually expect a more accurate result.

Despite this commitment, there are other factors such as quality of the receiver, atmospheric conditions and signal blockage that will affect tracking accuracy. Typical GPS-enabled smartphone users can expect accuracy within 16 feet under clear skies. Tracking accuracy can worsen near tunnels, bridges and buildings.

Problems with a device's hardware or mapping software can also be to blame for incorrect GPS tracking. When it comes to the distinctions between civilian- and military-grade GPS devices, user range error is the same, but civilian devices normally use one frequency and receivers use two. The advantage of two-frequency GPS tracking is correction for signal distortions caused by Earth's atmosphere, resulting in improved accuracy.

GPS spoofing. A spoof refers to the attempted deception for the purpose of obtaining access to the victim's resources, in this case, their location information. GPS spoofing is an attack in which a radio transmitter in proximity to the target is used to replace the authentic GPS signals transmitted by GPS satellites and used to guide smartphone or mobile device's map apps and location services. GPS spoofing involves broadcasting false geolocation data or rebroadcasting actual geolocation data from a different location or time.

One high-profile instance of mass GPS spoofing in 2017 affected 20 maritime vessels in the Black Sea, suggesting Russia was experimenting with signal interference and deceptive substitution. In some cases, the location and navigation anomalies resulted in a ship's location at an airport 25 nautical miles away, according to the GPS. Spoofing can be accomplished most easily on low-end, single-frequency devices and smartphones. High-end receivers today come available with spoofing detection and mitigation methods.

GPS jamming. GPS jamming is distinct from spoofing. GPS jammers are usually small devices that emit overpowering radio signals that drown out weaker signals from GPS or other sources. Once the device is powered on, an individual or entity's location can be quickly concealed. Low-cost GPS jammers are not only a nuisance to law enforcement -- and usually illegal -- but also a cause for concern, because they can disrupt the transportation industry and any other business that relies on GPS tracking.

One high-profile example of the jammer's potential for harm made headlines when a Newark, N.J., airport effectively shut down when a jammer inside a company vehicle interfered with traffic control signals.

Cyberstalking. Cyberstalking occurs when someone uses technology to target or harass a victim online. Hacking a device in order to track an individual's location and movements without consent is one example of cyberstalking. This is commonly accomplished by installing a surveillance application on a mobile device to track location without a person's knowledge.

Location-based services. Location-based services (LBS) are software applications accessible from a mobile device that require information about the device's location. Some LBS are query-based, providing answers to users' questions like "Where is the nearest gas station?" Others are defined by a push notification model, distributing marketing material like coupons and special offers from area businesses or attractions. LBS are required by law to obtain user permission to track location. After opting in, the application uses GPS to locate and track the end user's whereabouts. 

This was last published in May 2019

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