Skip to content

Illustration by Security Management

Faking Location Data Is Easy and Can Have Serious Consequences

Just a few years ago, getting a position fix on a Snorlax was an exciting find. We’re talking, of course, about the early days of Pokémon Go and finding a rare Pokémon such as a Snorlax meant, um, well it must have meant something, because people would get really excited. So excited that cheating the game by faking your geospatial location, or geo-spoofing, became a regular occurrence.

As it turns out, GPS data coming from satellites is unencrypted and easy to replace with a false signal.

Enter Bo Zhao, an assistant geography professor at the University of Washington, who recently published a paper in Cartography and Geographic Information Science looking at the potential for artificial intelligence (AI) to create fake satellite imagery. As described in an article in Fast Company, Zhao and his colleagues used satellite imagery of Beijing China, and Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, to create a fabricated city as seen from above.

“Tacoma roads appear in their accurate locations, but buildings from either low-rise Seattle or high-rise Beijing have been swapped in,” the article described. “At face value, the images appear to represent real places.”

The notion of AI being used in geo-spoofing raises the stakes significantly. Sure, cheating at a mobile game is not a big concern. But another inspiration behind Zhao’s research was people who faked their location on Twitter to make it look like they were witnesses of unfolding events. It’s not hard to see how geo-spoofing raises real-world concerns; from investigations to kidnappings, faked GPS data can lead to security issues that need unravelling.

Kick it up a notch from an individual level to a sophisticated syndicate or nation-state level, and now the issues begin to have serious consequences, real quick. A 2018 report from research organization C4ADS identified nearly 10,000 spoofing incidents affecting more than 1,000 commercial vessels (mostly ships and airplanes), identifying Russia as the likely source of the disruption. A paper from researchers at Virginia Tech, Microsoft, and the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China demonstrated via simulation how easy it would be to use geo-spoofing of a car or mobile phone navigation system to steer drivers to a destination of the spoofer’s choosing.

Geospatial faking of satellite imagery could be used to hide anything from nuclear development sites to deforestation activity to prison camps, according to Zhao. Of course, just as with faking a location to cheat at a game or access entertainment you otherwise could not access, there are positive potential positive uses of appearing to be somewhere else. This includes accessing news and information banned by an oppressive regime. The technology used to fake satellite imagery could be used for urban planning purposes or to understand potential ramifications of climate change.

The bottom line, Zhao said, is that he is “trying to encourage people not to use geospatial data without question or critique. People need to realize that geospatial data could be misused or could be generate for malicious purposes."