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The Problem with GPS

written by: Daniel P. McGoldrick•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 6/8/2011

So what is the problem with GPS, you ask? Actually, there are a few. Some relate to technical aspects of the technology on the ground and in space, while others involve the natural disposition of the Earth’s atmosphere. And of course, we can’t leave out the deficiencies of human operators either.

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    The problem with GPS does not rest with one particular issue. There are several factors combined, or more often working independently, that can result in a receiver producing inaccurate coordinates, false information, and sometimes no information at all. But perhaps the greatest trouble with GPS revolves around the people that over rely on them as the Gospel truth in instances when that dependence is a potential threat to themselves and others. This is no cause for great concern since on the whole, GPS navigational technology works amazingly well, and let’s not forget the enormous length of time that humans got along just fine without it.

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    Issues with Receivers

    Handheld Gps Units Perhaps a good place to start would be with the portable units you have in your car or the handheld unit you rely on in the great outdoors since you might be searching specifically for that issue. With so many different makes and models out there, those problems and solutions are far too vast to cover. However, an article regarding Garmin service locations to repair whatever Garmin GPS unit you own might be of assistance to you. Otherwise, we also have articles for other common issues that you can search our database for such as Magellan update concerns or iPhone GPS malfunctions, or something as specific as a TomTom GO910 troubleshooting. Just enter your specific issue into our search function to see if we can help you with common manufacturer problems or simply how to operate your particular unit.

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    Latency and Inaccuracy

    This is speed issue, and what we mentioned about the Earth’s atmospheric conditions which effects the amount of time a GPS signal takes to travel from any satellite to a GPS device looking to find its location. This is more of a problem with older models, as technology has improved to get a lock quicker. A signal will never move faster than light speed, so this will always remain a minor problem. Granted, it’s just a fraction of a second, but pilots using GPS could be adversely affected by the delay. This is one of the issues addressed in the problems with GPS. You’ll also learn in that article that the problem of inaccuracy has been greatly reduced due to the fact that GPS receivers have superior central processing units (CPUs) installed in them now. But other issues affecting accuracy are terrain (deep canyons, heavy timber canopies), man-made obstructions like skyscrapers, and foul weather that produces heavy cloud cover.

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    Satellite Breakdown or Destruction

    GPS Satellite In Orbit Artist's Rendering Obviously, the GPS satellites in space won’t last forever; they can break down, and on occasion need maintenance to work effectively. That’s a long and expensive trip for the Maytag repair man. New ones have been sent up or are scheduled for launch but since different countries are involved, it’s no guarantee that they’re compatible (try and stick an American appliance into a European outlet and you’ll see the potential dilemma). GPS Satellite Deterioration expounds upon the problem with GPS in this regard.

    GPS satellites could also be destroyed or damaged by meteors, solar flares, and ionospheric scintillation. By the same token, warring adversaries could try and take them out with missiles to try and gain an advantage by knocking out the navigational systems that the military relies on across the board. This is why the newer GPS satellites are given armor and the technology to maneuver (like outer space bobbing and weaving robotic boxers) to evade a hostile attack. Even the war games practiced by many countries will restrict access to GPS by civilians in certain areas or block the signal altogether. These are just a few of the intriguing items mentioned in Is GPS Vulnerable to Attack and Misdirection: Top 10 Issues.

    Image courtesy of

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    Privacy and Tracking Issues Related to GPS Technology

    Some believe that the problem with GPS rests squarely in issues relating to privacy and freedom. Any government’s ability to track and monitor a private citizen with GPS technology is spooky in some regards. Whether they place a GPS tracking device on your person or vehicle, or have the capability to track the GPS you own is a troubling factor, especially if you’re not a criminal. In the U.S. it can be seen as a violation of Civil Liberties. For instance, you might want to read up on ethics violations and GPS cell phones to learn what is at stake.

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    Interference, Jamming, and Spoofing

    Since GPS frequencies are low, all sorts of interference, intentional or otherwise, pose problems. Understanding how GPS signal jammers work essentially equates to learning about a device that employs a signal which interferes with the ability of a receiver to pick up a signal within a certain radius depending upon how powerful the jammer is. However, unintentional jamming is the result of commercial television broadcasts, aeronautical satellite communications, military communication systems, very high-frequency transmitters, Ultra Wide-Band systems, and Mobile Satellite System terminals producing the same effect.

    Spoofing provides fake GPS satellite signals to GPS receivers so that they display the wrong coordinates or time. Spoofers send deliberately misleading information to wreak havoc on navigation. This type of attack isn’t even that difficult for malefactors to create with a spoofing device and a little bit of knowledge about GPS receivers. To learn a great deal more about these issues and countermeasures in the works to combat them, read about GPS jamming, spoofing and the other vulnerabilities that are currently being addressed, while we try to stay one step ahead of the people that never cease in their efforts to disrupt.

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    Reliance on GPS by Human Operators in Lieu of Common Sense

    GPS devices send people from Point A to Point B by the quickest route. Sometimes this means sending motor vehicles through neighborhoods with small children that should not see excessive traffic because it’s dangerous. In addition, GPS devices will direct motorists on routes on dangerous roads, trucks on narrow roads where they shouldn’t be, and over bridges that are no longer there. In GPS Overdependence, more of these problems with GPS are discussed but suffice is to stay, never disregard your human ability to reason and employ common sense, even when your GPS is telling you to do otherwise.

    So there you have a comprehensive list of potential problems with GPS. Most of them are being addressed by manufactures and new technologies as they emerge. Here’s hoping that you arrive at all your destinations safely in the meantime.