Where in the World is Vladimir Putin?

This week we’ve read about the privacy implications of policies in China that allow for as-far-as-we-know unprecedented levels of surveillance to stop the spread of COVID-19. According to an article from Amnesty International, individuals’ locations can be pinpointed to a train seat and to within three rows of a confirmed or suspected virus carrier.[1]

While the world will continue to debate surveillance practices and their post-COVID-19 implications and uses, I’m drawn to an article from Foreign Policy published several weeks ago about Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The article discusses how researchers in Washington have found that whenever the Russian President gets close to a harbor or port, “the GPS of the ships moored there go haywire, placing them many miles away on the runways of nearby airports.”

Highlighting the potential to manipulate location services, researchers suggest that President Putin travels with a mobile GPS spoofing device and “that Russia is manipulating global navigation systems on a scale far greater than previously understood.”

We know location tracking technology is still improving and not 100% reliable. For instance, in the Amnesty article, Chinese citizens have complained that the data shows them in places where they have not physically gone. But clearly some are already practicing manipulating the system, before we even have a grasp on the accurate capabilities of this technology.

According to the Foreign Policy article, the Kremlin works to undermine the military advantage in the West by investing heavily in electronic warfare, “significantly increasing its ability to jam enemy communications that make possible U.S. ideas of networked warfare.” The U.S. has responded by moving to upgrade its electronic warfare capabilities.

President Putin embraces the GPS-spoofing technology as his personal security utilizes it to protect him from drone attacks, similar to the attempted attack last year on the Venezuelan President.

GPS interference is also an apparent practice here in the United States; earlier this year, the U.S. military “warned that GPS interference exercises would likely affect systems across a huge swatch of the southeastern United States. It’s unclear exactly what technical systems the U.S. Secret Service uses to protect American leaders from drone threats.”[2]

The reports on the Russian President and the current uses of location tracking in China both demonstrate the capacity of such a proficient system and just how vulnerable this technology is to manipulation. Further, it’s not reserved for heads of state; GPS-spoofing equipment can cost as little as $350. And the U.S. and Russia are likely not the only governments deploying such security systems. Not only that, but illicit actors are supposedly using the technology to operate in the dark. Foreign Policy writes that in 2015, U.S. government officials believed drug cartels were spoofing GPS systems in drones along the U.S. — Mexico border.

Location services and tracking of individuals by cell phone are not new concepts, however it is reasonable to expect a greater expansion of use-cases amidst the current state of COVID-19. One need not look far to see how expanded tracking could be deployed where the data gathered drives our daily lives; this is happening in China now, as the government there works to track its citizens and identify high-risk individuals.

Even in the U.S., in the last week or so, Apple and Google announced that the companies are “spinning up a system to enable widespread contact tracing in an effort to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.”[3]

The nascent initiative is still not entirely clear, and is opt-in with some attractive incentives to encourage users to participate. The purpose is commendable as our world desperately works to flatten the curve and release pressure on health care systems. As testing ramps up, the Google/Apple software would help determine who came in contact with whom, which has historically been a much more manual process.

Interestingly, the companies have vowed to dismantle the system when the time comes, and to use it only for the narrow scope of contact tracing. Understandably, questions swirl about whether the software could/would be used for the most targeted advertising yet, but Google and Apple deny it. Relative to what is happening in China in terms of tracking, the Google/Apple initiative is soft. But to many Americans, it’s still a powerful tool, and though we are certainly more willing to participate because of the current health crisis, it remains to be seen if that sticks when we emerge, whenever that may be…

The location services and tracking software, technology, and practices may all look different between the United States, Russia, China, and others, but I find a common thread in that we don’t yet know where it’s all headed and how it can and will be used.

Russia’s neighbors complain about the interference and impact on their own security. Scandinavian pilots reported problems with their GPS systems; Norwegian intelligence officials traced jamming of an ambulance plane to the Russian military. Like most technology, in the hands of good people the potential is boundless, and in the hands of bad actors the costs and implications are frightening.

Though not a new concept or concern, the problems with location tracking seem heightened due to the current state of the world. Even more reliant than we normally are on technology to communicate, work, and check in on each other, it’s easier to see what the impact could be of manipulating such simple data to tell a location story that strays from the truth.

[1] https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/04/how-china-used-technology-to-combat-covid-19-and-tighten-its-grip-on-citizens/

[2] https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/04/03/russia-is-tricking-gps-to-protect-putin/

[3] https://www.theverge.com/interface/2020/4/14/21219289/apple-google-contact-tracing-app-android-ios-pros-cons-quarantine-testing

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