Who would be to blame if your plane got tricked into flying into a war zone?

If GPS gets jammed, machines could confidently err off course into strange and dangerous locales, potentially edging up already mounting tensions in geopolitical hotspots. Some signs of that are already emerging from the Middle East, which begs the question of who is to blame? More importantly, is this an emerging tool of a proxy war?

Hacked GPS sending a passenger plane into a conflict area where it could get shot down “accidentally” is a hornet’s nest for attribution and could prove especially tempting all along the areas of contested airspace around slightly muddy borderlines disputes.

All that’s necessary is an overpowering GPS signal in close proximity to the onboard receiver of, for example, a passenger jet, and adversaries could send the plane wherever they wish. There are some inertial guidance systems as well, but still plenty of faith in GPS to tempt others into peril.

Luckily, planes do have backups, like waiting for radar operators to guide them along the intended path, but only if the pilot is paying close attention.

How hard are GPS jammers to buy or build? That depends on how much area you want to jam, and from what distance. GNSS/GPS signals are very, very faint, so they rely on overly sensitive receiving stations to detect their signals. This means a relatively small, relatively inexpensive (~US$1,000) transmitter the size of an external hard drive or so can jam (about) a 500-meter radius.

The technology is widely available and well developed, meaning it’s both attainable and extensible. This is due, in part, to the widely available standard for GPS technology that has allowed developers to rapidly spread its popularity to become a worldwide phenomenon.

It’s one thing to jam a signal, but a more complex operation to fake GPS signals to send the receiver off course. Still, the technology is available, and seems poised to proliferate, especially in the hands of those wishing ill.

Don’t have enough budget to jam an aircraft? Swarms of autonomous vehicles seem like a juicy terrestrial target, as is taking out the swarms of GPS-enabled sensors used to keep an eye on technological doodads like traffic management in cities, resulting in traffic havoc of your choosing.

It seems obvious to build robust backup navigation systems into such critical, even public safety, systems, for just this eventuality. However, if the rush-to-market beats rush-to-security – which it seems it always does – we’ll see more of the same. If rapidly developing technologies’ trajectories are any kind of reliable guide, markets typically trump security. That means we should expect more shenanigans.

Sure, if a jamming base station keeps broadcasting it could attract attention, but keeping a jammer on just long enough to accomplish an effect seems like an obvious counter. Speaking of countering, there’s still time to claim you’re being GPS hacked if your car pulls into a shady place of your choosing, but few would believe you anyway, and it’s still a hard thing to prove.