The Krem­lin’s GPS Scram­ble

Call­ing an Uber in the heart of Moscow has be­come a chal­lenge

The Moscow Times - - LIVING HERE - By Kevin Rothrock and Matthew Kupfer news­re­porter@ime­dia.ru | Il­lus­tra­tion by Ka­te­rina Lobanova

For the past sev­eral months, Mus­covites have been com­plain­ing on so­cial me­dia that their GPS-pow­ered mo­bile apps are mal­func­tion­ing. Users of the Yan­dex.Nav­i­ga­tor map­ping app have run into fre­quent prob­lems, for ex­am­ple, watch­ing their ve­hi­cles’ lo­ca­tions bounce all over the map. When the pop­u­lar, GPS-based Poke­mon Go game ar­rived in Rus­sia ear­lier this year, Moscow’s ge­olo­ca­tion is­sues only wors­ened.

Ev­ery­one ex­pe­ri­enc­ing these prob­lems re­ports one thing in com­mon: de­vices start act­ing strange near the Krem­lin, at the very cen­ter of Moscow. It doesn’t hap­pen con­stantly, but the prob­lems are fre­quent enough to demon­strate a pat­tern. Of­ten, the GPS “tele­ports” you to one of Moscow’s air­ports.

This strange ef­fect causes many dif­fi­cul­ties, and ge­olo­ca­tion­based services like Uber are deal­ing with the fall­out.

“While in an Uber, [the app] first trans­ported us to Vnukovo Air­port, then turned back, as if we had trav­eled a to­tal of more than 60 kilo­me­ters,” says An­drei She­p­elev, a Mus­covite who, in re­al­ity, had trav­eled less than 10 kilo­me­ters.

“I wrote to Uber and they re­im­bursed me,” She­p­elev told The Moscow Times.

Pop­u­lar blog­ger and pod­caster Grig­ory Bakunov de­cided to in­ves­ti­gate these trou­bles first­hand. Bakunov says he got so fed up with spec­u­la­tion about what was hap­pen­ing that he loaded a back­pack full of de­vices that use GPS and GLONASS, hopped onto a seg­way, and set off to do laps around cen­tral Moscow, mea­sur­ing the strength and ac­cu­racy of his ge­olo­ca­tion sig­nals. He spent three hours rolling around the Krem­lin, start­ing at 9 a.m. and wrap­ping up at noon.

But un­like the peo­ple com­plain­ing about the prob­lem on­line, Bakunov mapped his en­tire ex­per­i­ment. He was able to mea­sure, in blue and red, where his GPS and GLONASS de­vices suc­cumbed to lo­ca­tion-spoof­ing. Take a look at his map, and you’ll see that the epi­cen­ter of the ge­olo­ca­tion in­ter­fer­ence is some­where in­side the Krem­lin.

Bakunov says he be­lieves there is a pow­er­ful trans­mit­ter op­er­at­ing at ran­dom in­ter­vals in­side the Krem­lin, spoof­ing ge­olo­ca­tion sig­nals on the L1 fre­quency, which is what civil­ian de­vices rely on for ge­olo­ca­tion.

He be­lieves the trans­mit­ter is also jam­ming the L2 and L5 fre­quen­cies, which mil­i­taries use for in­creased ac­cu­racy and re­li­a­bil­ity.

When Bakunov’s de­vices came un­der the in­flu­ence of the spoof­ing trans­mis­sion, they sud­denly thought they were at the cen­ter of Vnukovo Air­port, roughly 30 kilo­me­ters south­west of the Krem­lin. He spec­u­lates that the trans­mit­ter is meant to con­vince quad­copter drones, which come pro­grammed to stop op­er­at­ing near ma­jor air­ports, that they are ac­tu­ally at an air­port and thereby pre­vent them from en­ter­ing the Krem­lin.

Bakunov cites a re­cent case when the anti-cor­rup­tion ac­tivist Alexei Navalny used a drone to in­ves­ti­gate a dacha re­port­edly be­long­ing to Prime Min­is­ter Dmitry Medvedev as an ex­am­ple of why the Krem­lin might be con­cerned.

“They’re do­ing bat­tle with drones in a very strange way,” Bakunov says. “It’s not about pol­i­tics, but about this very hum­drum con­cern.”

So far, no gov­ern­ment agency has come for­ward to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for the GPS jam­ming. But Krem­lin spokesman Dmitry Peskov con­firmed he per­son­ally ex­pe­ri­enced the same prob­lems while driv­ing by the Krem­lin.

“On my smart­phone, Yan­dex.Nav­i­ga­tor sud­denly moved me to some other place,” he said. “I didn’t pay much at­ten­tion, though I was sur­prised.”

Mean­while, com­men­ta­tors are crit­i­ciz­ing the Krem­lin’s at­tack on ge­olo­ca­tion.

“This in­no­va­tion is hardly prac­ti­cal,” jour­nal­ist An­drei Babit­sky wrote in the Ve­do­mosti news­pa­per. “The Rus­sian pres­i­dent’s se­cu­rity hardly de­pends on the abil­ity of a Chi­nese drone to take pho­tos of Red Square.”

Bakunov agrees. “GPS is used to ac­cu­rately geopo­si­tion a de­vice,” he says. “But ‘ac­cu­rate’ doesn’t mean ‘mil­i­tary grade.’ There’s a range of 30-40 me­ters, so I don’t think there is any prac­ti­cal threat.”

But Alexei Gilya­zov, PR man­ager at the Garmin technology com­pany’s Rus­sian office, be­lieves there may be le­git­i­mate con­cerns be­hind the Krem­lin’s GPS in­ter­fer­ence. While he can­not spec­u­late on the gov­ern­ment’s ex­act mo­ti­va­tions, he says that de­vices equipped with GPS, In­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity, cam­eras, and mi­cro­phones could pose a threat. Many peo­ple in the Krem­lin are us­ing these types of de­vices, and they can be in­fected with viruses and mal­ware with­out the user’s knowl­edge.

“There are some viruses that gather in­for­ma­tion about a per­son’s move­ments,” Gilya­zov says. “That could be used in a very bad way.”

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