Enter the maze

Pokemon Lost

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

A satellite above earth. From PIXABAY.com

People playing PokemonGo around the Kremlin in 2016 were some of the first to experience a new form of cyberwarfare: spoofing the GPS system. Pokemon vanished. Taxis ordered online also ended up in the wrong place. The Kremlin was protecting itself, though more likely from missiles than Pokemon players.

GPS, originally designed for the military, is now something everyone depends on. It guides drivers (and cars without drivers), shipping and aircraft rely on it and it is central to many location aware services whether labelling your photos, or telling you how far away the nearest pizza is. GPS receivers listen for signals from satellites, and, from the time it takes the signal to get to them, work out how far away they are. As the exact positions of the satellites are known, signals from four or more satellites is enough for your device to pinpoint exactly where you are on Earth using geometry.

The trouble is, it is possible to spoof the system, sending out powerful fake signals that appear to be from the real satellites. This can be used to make the receiver's calculations go wrong, so that the geometry tells it it is somewhere else.

More recently, similar strange things have been happening to ships at sea. Their GPS has been telling them they are somewhere they are not, suggesting the system may be being trialled as a mobile weapon. GPS was designed for military use, to guide fighter aircraft and missiles, so it's not surprising really that ways to disrupt it have been developed. If perfected such a spoofing system might be used to guide ships, cars or people into traps, or the other side's missiles to where you want them to go, rather than where they were sent. Turning the other side's GPS into a weapon against them was always the next step of cyberwarfare.