VSL:SCIENCE // Maybe you shouldn’t trust GPS

Once upon a time, people put a great deal of stock in large sheets of folded paper. Those sheets were covered in lines and fine print; they were called maps. But those of us with GPS units don’t need maps anymore. We can now tell where we’re going by monitoring signals beamed down from dozens of artificial satellites. Or can we?

What if those satellites started lying to us? If, instead of helping us find our way, they started getting us terribly lost? Last week, a team of researchers at Cornell University announced that, after a solid year of patient tinkering, they’d finally succeeded in tricking GPS receivers into accepting fake signals (or “spoofs”). It was the first time a GPS system had been hacked, and given that GPS systems now guide our drones and missiles as well as our cars and selves, this is a somewhat disturbing development. (The Department of Homeland Security is not unaware of the threat, and has released a detailed plan of anti-spoofing countermeasures.) Scarier still, the researchers used off-the-shelf technology to create the transmitter they used to modify GPS signals. The end result was a torrent of misinformation, conveyed in a deceptively soothing monotone.

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