How many times a day do you pull up your smartphone to make sure you’re heading in the right direction? Checking in on Foursquare? Playing a game with IRL map overlay? All these can be disrupted with dashboard jammers as cheap as $80–and North Korea has been weaponizing these things for some time.
Civilian use of GPS jammers is illegal in the U.S. and the U.K. for obvious reasons–they can kill phone service by obscuring tower locations, and disrupt civil aviation in more obvious ways–but military-grade jammers have been used by North Korea to jam South Korea’s GPS equipment since the North bought truck-mounted jammers from Russia in 2010. Those jammers disrupted hundreds of aircraft and fishing craft in the West Sea with radii as large as 100 kilometers, which officials were concerned would cause ships to inadvertently navigate into North Korean waters (where, presumably, they’d be looted).
To combat this threat, South Korea is investing in a backup network of eLoran units–a whopping 43 of them. The name eLoran is an acronym for “electronic long range navigation,” a WWII-era technology that uses stronger signals than GPS. South Korea hopes to have its network up by 2016 (and fully operational by 2018), while Britain’s General Lighthouse Authority will construct 7 eLoran stations that should be up by mid-2014.
The U.S., on the other hand, isn’t building any. In fact, it destroyed its only eLoran tower 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle in 2010. DARPA has been playing with a “single-chip timing and inertial measurement unit” (TIMU) that uses internal gyroscopes and accelerometers to track position without the aid of satellites, but it’s far from fieldable.
But even civilian networks are threatened by jammers, also known as “spoofers”: At the U.K.’s National Physics Laboratory conference in 2012, University of Texas assistant professor Todd Humphries claimed to have used a powerful civilian jammer to disrupt timing devices in cell phone towers, breaking down the synchronization that allows one tower to hand off a call to another. Trucking companies track their shipments using GPS tech and auto rental companies use it to keep an eye on renters to ensure they don’t leave the geographical area. Even a suitcase-sized jammer could jam from 300-1000 meters, Internet ads claim.
Those jammers have been used in isolated incidents to block calls and tracking data in order to hijack trucks. The National Physics Laboratory has been taking part in project SENTINEL, experimenting with roadside sensors that were tripped by passing jammers; one sensor was tripped 60 times in six months.
Whether these jammers are used to hide criminal activity or just to stay off the boss’s radar is a question for better technology and a more concerned citizenry. But we venture to guess that if Steve Jobs were born today, he’d skip phone phreaking and manipulate GPS instead.
[Image: Flickr user Justin Cozart]