The Problem With Jam

The New York City area is serviced by three major airports — JFK and LaGuardia, both in the city borough of Queens, and Newark Liberty Airport, in Newark, New Jersey. Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of air traffic in the area, and efforts to streamline airplane traffic flow is always a priority. In December of 2008, a lot of fanfare — at least in aviation circles — Newark announced they would become “the nation’s first major hub to test a new satellite navigation technology” called the Ground Based Augmentation System (GBAS). At first, only Continental Airlines was involved in this test run, but it must have worked well; over the last few years, more and more airlines have availed themselves of the system. 

But GBAS wasn’t perfect. From the time Newark started using GBAS until the spring of 2011, the system would occasionally glitch. And glitching equipment and airplanes don’t mix. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) set out to investigate. 

The problem: someone’s employer was keeping tabs on him. And he didn’t like it.

In today’s world — where many employees and students are working and studying from home — workplace privacy is increasingly a sticky subject, as our offices and classrooms are also our bedrooms and kitchens. But while that’s a relatively new application of the privacy question, the general issue isn’t new at all. And it is especially common for those roles that place workers out in the field without a supervisor present. 

In 2009, Tilcon, a New York City-area construction company, had many such workers, driving company trucks from worksite to worksite, often bouncing around the region throughout the day. Not wanting their workers to take the scenic route or to stop off for an extended coffee break between jobs, Tilcon outfitted these company trucks with GPS trackers. And one worker, who for privacy reasons we’ll simply call “Gary” (his full name is easily discoverable), wasn’t having it. As reported, Gary installed a GPS blocker in the truck. 

Gary’s employer didn’t notice and this should have been no big deal. But GPS blockers aren’t a precision tool. As The Week explains, it is “very easy” to block a GPS signal — those signals are coming from satellites more than 10,000 miles away, and  as a result, any strong signal that operates on the same frequency will “effectively drowning out the GPS signal.” For about $30, you can probably order one online for your car (although that’d be illegal); per The Week, “the simplest models plug into a cigarette lighter, and can prevent all GPS reception within a 10-mile radius.”

And if you’ve ever driven by Newark Airport, you know that the New Jersey Turnpike runs well within that 10-mile radius. (Here’s a picture of a plane either taking off or landing at Newark; the planes fly very, very close to the highway.) Gary, as you may have already figured out, regularly drove his truck on that stretch of highway. His little GPS jammer, designed to prevent his employer from knowing his whereabouts, was putting international air travel at risk. Oops.

Gary never intended this result and, according to Autoblog, immediately surrender the jammer once he learned about what he had accidentally done. But the FAA and the Federal Communications Commission weren’t about to move on. The FCC fined Gary more than $30,000 (despite the fact that no aircraft were ever in actual danger). And yes, Tilton fired Gary as well.

Bonus fact: If you were in Australia before 2020, there’s a reasonable chance that your GPS was off by a bit. When GPS maps were established there in 1994, everything was basically where it should have been. But as the Australian government noted more recently, “due to plate tectonic motion, Australia has moved ~7 cm per year,” and that adds up: “by 2020, the difference will be approximately 1.8 meters.” As a result, Australia updated its GPS data last year. 

From the Archives: The Problem with Chinese GPS: It’s different.