Bizarre GPS Activity Means Drivers Near the Kremlin Are Always at the Airport

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems

Everyone loves a good mystery, and in Russia it seems there are many. Read up on the Dyatlov Pass incident if you’re looking for a reason not to go camping.

In the country where a bearded charlatan once inspired a great disco song, something odd has cropped up in recent months. Moscow motorists, when not surviving serious collisions in subpar vehicles without a scratch, have noticed that their GPS device will suddenly re-position its location when driving near the Kremlin.

The closer to the Kremlin, the more likely the device will suddenly find an alternative location to exist. In every instance, the location is the same: Vnukovo Airport, 20 miles from the seat of government.

Local media had a field day with the news, with The Moscow Times running the headline, “The Kremlin Eats GPS for Breakfast.” Clearly, an unknown force, emitted from somewhere, is interfering with satellite signals and replacing pinpoint coordinates with a default location when people stray too near.

Before Christmas, a CNN reporter walked towards the Kremlin, phone in hand. Standing a mile from the complex, her Google Maps position remained stubbornly locked on Vnukova Airport, and nothing could be done to reset it. A CNN photojournalist travelling near the Kremlin found himself with a steep Uber bill after the driver’s GPS incorrectly calculated a trip from the airport, even though the trip didn’t originate, or terminate, at the airport.

When asked, official channels returned no explanation. The Russian Federal Protection Service, tasked with Kremlin security, apparently has no interest in dashing across Red Square to provide the press with details on the mystery.

An expert in GPS technology, Todd Humphreys of the University of Texas’ Radionavigation Laboratory in Austin, told CNN that the situation bears all the hallmarks of “spoofing.” Unlike jamming, where signals are simply denied access, GPS spoofing overpowers a signal with a much stronger one. That leads the device to believe that it is actually in a very different location.

Humphreys is convinced that the signals are being sent out to keep pesky drones away from the Kremlin. Because many commercial drones are pre-programmed to avoid airports, sending out a misleading signal would keep those peeping quadrocopters at bay. Can’t be too careful, you know.

Pushing out the signal would be a fairly easy task, too. All that’s needed is a GPS signal generator, an amplifier, and antennae.

Moscow blogger and Segway driver Grigory Bakunov, who mapped out phony signal area during a two-wheeled excursion last fall, believes the Kremlin pumps out a spoofed geolocation signal on the L1 frequency — the same one used by devices that map a person’s location.

Given that the Russian government has nothing to say about the matter, Muscovites had best get used to paying for rides from the airport, whether they were there or not.

[Image: Wikimedia Commons ( CC BY 2.0)]

Steph Willems
Steph Willems

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