Greg Miller’s crackerjack story in the November 2019 issue of Smithsonian magazine is about the quest to capture German geodetic data—and German geographers—during the dying days of the Second World War. Said data was a strategically critical treasure trove, of immense interest to the U.S. War Department, and the team led by Floyd W. Hough was in a race to find it before it was destroyed, carried away by the enemy, or fell into Soviet hands.
Little is publicly known about the true scope of the information that Hough and his team captured, or the ingenuity they displayed in securing it, because their mission was conducted in secret, and the technical material they seized circulated only among military intelligence experts and academics. But it was a vast scientific treasure—likely the largest cache of geographic data the United States ever obtained from an enemy power in wartime.
“The world-changing differences documented by maps in the Eastern Bloc Borderlands project cannot be overstated,” says Michelle Dalmau, head of Digital Collections Services for IU Libraries, and the project’s principal investigator. “In some cases we see villages and settlements depicted that no longer exist.”
Created by the Russian Military from 1883 to 1947, the maps traveled widely through their tactical use in the field. In the years surrounding World War II, many were captured by opposing forces, including German and American troops. As a result, myriad stamps from institutions they passed through—such as the University of Berlin, the U.S. Army Map Service, and the CIA Map Library—mark the maps with a unique and visual history.
By uploading an altered GPS file, it’s possible to de-anonymise the company’s data and show exactly who was exercising inside the walls of some of the world’s most top-secret facilities. Once someone makes a data request for a specific geographic location—a nuclear weapons facility, for example—it’s possible to view the names, running speeds, running routes and heart rates of anyone who shared their fitness data within that area.
The leaderboard for an area, the Guardian reports, can be extremely revealing. “The leaderboard for one 600m stretch outside an airbase in Afghanistan, for instance, reveals the full names of more than 50 service members who were stationed there, and the date they ran that stretch. One of the runners set his personal best on 20 January this year, meaning he is almost certainly still stationed there.”
Which makes the security issue regarding military personnel using fitness trackers even worse than simply the anonymous aggregate of the routes they take. Yes, this is very much an unintended and unforseen consequence of relatively innocuous social sharing bumping up against operational and personal security protocols; and it’s as much on military personnel to, you know, not use GPS-enabled devices that upload your location to a third-party server as it is on companies to have clear and effective privacy controls. This is very much the result of a whole lot of people not thinking things through.
Meanwhile, aerial war games conducted by the USAF over Nevada will disrupt GPS in the western U.S. over the next few weeks. As The Drive reports, “the USAF is going to blackout GPS over the sprawling Nevada Test and Training Range to challenge aircrews and their weaponry under realistic fighting conditions. The tactic will spill over throughout the region, with warnings being posted stating inconsistent GPS service could be experienced by aircrews flying throughout the western United States.” The disruptions will occur through 16 February. [Matt Blaze]
Strava is a mobile fitness tracking app that uses GPS data from phones and watches. It has access to a lot of data, and has been using that data to create a global heat map showing the paths taken by its cycling and running customers. The map’s most recent update, last November, aggregates user data through September 2017. But analyst Nathan Ruser noticed a problem: in places where local Strava use is low, the map can reveal the paths of people from wealthy western countries—for example, soldiers at U.S. military bases overseas, whether they’re patrolling or simply exercising. (U.S. troops are encouraged to use fitness trackers.) Which is to say, suddenly Strava is a security problem. Details at BBC News and the Washington Post.
Scientific American on how the U.S. military used GPS during the first Gulf War in 1991—the first war in which GPS played a major role. “GPS would change warfare and soon became an indispensible asset for adventurers, athletes and commuters as well. The navigation system has become so ubiquitous, in fact, that the Pentagon has come full circle and is investing tens of millions of dollars to help the military overcome its heavy dependence on the technology.”