The Kremlin’s GPS Scramble
Calling an Uber in the heart of Moscow has become a challenge
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.”