2021 Prediction #5: Apple (and maybe Google) saves the world

Back on January 23, the New York Times published an Op-Ed piece by Kate Murphy titled America Has a GPS Problem, citing fear at the highest levels of government and industry that international bad actors might bring down the Global Positioning System satellite network, running your Tesla into a guardrail in the process. It’s just the sort of story you’d expect to read here, rather than in the Times, but what the heck. And the story is absolutely correct: we are all in danger. But Ms. Murphy, beyond wringing her hands, doesn’t say how the crisis will be averted or who will do the averting. I predict that Apple will fix the problem and save the day and they’ll probably do it this year.

The military and intelligence communities have long been worried that China or Russia could shoot down some or all of the 24 GPS satellites, blinding our strategic weapons in the process. It’s literal shooting-down, too, since the anti-satellite weapons demonstrated so far have been kinetic -- dumb rocks smashed into our satellites at incredible speed, knocking them from the sky and requiring incredible precision. So far only China and Russia have this offensive capability. But Ms. Murphy and the Times expand the population of bad guys beyond China and Russia to include enemies jamming, spoofing, or otherwise hacking GPS, which could be anyone -- Iran, North Korea, even groups of private individuals.

The military solution to this problem has, up until now, involved the idea of being able to replace GPS satellites faster than they can be shot down. But since hackers, jammers, and spoofers don’t have to shoot down anything, we really need an alternative to GPS, itself, which sounds like a great business opportunity for someone.

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I’m not necessarily talking about another satellite system, either, though that’s certainly possible. But here’s the real challenge: any solution really has to work -- at least for awhile -- with existing GPS receivers. That is, to avoid spoofing problems, this new navigation system will have to, itself, be a super-spoofer, emulating GPS satellites whether it physically replaces them or not.

We’re just too dependent on GPS. Any maker of a more secure system would be thrilled, of course, to replace billions of GPS receivers. And I mean billions, since every smartphone has one as does every Internet-of-Things device.

Whatever comes to more securely replace GPS will eventually dominate, but initially it will also have to emulate or we’ll be blind.

Any superior GPS replacement won’t rely on just different satellites, it must rely on different technology. For that, Apple is the best --and possibly only -- bet.

There are already billions of GPS devices that work quite well most of the time. Replacing them would not only cost tens of billions, it would take years. What you really want is a system that can perform two very specific functions: 1) it can be used to verify or validate the GPS signal, and; 2) it can replace GPS when absolutely necessary.

Is this GPS position real, we’ll wonder, and how do we even determine that? Even more importantly, how do we do so without having to change everything? Can we do it in software?

One thing Apple could do is monitor iPhone positions and set off an alarm if it has significantly changed or disappeared for no reason -- especially if the displacement affects more than one phone. We could do this with an app that tracks past movements and looks for nonsensical changes of position. If we just changed position in a way that would require traveling faster than is possible (even faster than light), it’s probably not legit, so set off an alarm. That, in itself, creates two additional problems. How do we then figure out where we actually are? And what if this just trains the bad guys to lead us slowly astray? If our threshold for displacement is 10 kilometers or even 10 meters, the bad guys can just introduce their change one meter at a time and we may never see it. So the app I suggest is useful, but not an absolute solution. And it’s still not a true alternative to GPS.

You can contrast local disruptions with global disruptions. A local disruption would be like that trucker’s GPS jammer from the Times story that allowed him to driver overtime. Have we suddenly lost our signal and -- if we have -- how do we estimate our current position with similar or better accuracy? If we’ve suddenly lost our signal, has everyone everywhere lost their signal, too? That’s a global disruption. And what do we do about that?

There is a cloud solution here, which either Apple or Google could put in place. Apple’s would be better, but Google’s might be good enough. There are hundreds of millions of Apple and Android phones all over the world, generally functioning as nodes on two or three networks simultaneously. You can triangulate with other nodes on the surviving networks to determine location down to a few meters, I’m sure. That’s not WAAS accuracy, but good enough. But it requires establishing a system that keeps track of all phones all the time, constantly triangulating between them all to determine which are moving and which aren’t. Enough nodes will be permanently fixed, like routers and GPS extenders, to relate the moving nodes to the real world without needing a GPS cross-check.

I know there are privacy implications in this, but one way to handle that is to anonymize the data and to monitor everyone. It doesn’t matter who owns the node, just that it exists.

So you have this huge map of all wired and wireless networks. It can be used to warn of a disruption and then to substitute a really good estimate of actual position -- Android within a couple meters and iPhones to a centimeter because of that U1 chip. Positioning might be harder for targets out at sea or in the air, but I can think of ways around that, too, at least for Apple.

Thanks to billions of devices, then, we’d have TWO alternative systems that could be used also to check on each other, because if spoofing GPS is out the bad guys will want to spoof any GPS replacement, too. 

Only Apple has the end-to-end product ecosystem to simply impose this on the world. Cupertino didn’t ask anyone’s permission to launch iMessage, remember, decimating telco texting in the process. Why should this be different? And I predict that they’ll not only do it, but they’ll do it in 2021, because that will give Apple something new to talk about post-5G.

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