View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Geocaching & Terror

Our business school High Performance Management team is doing this thing called "geocaching" for our project. Essentially, it's a high-tech treasure hunt using GPS receivers, with people taking and leaving little tokens in a small canister to prove that they found the target. It's a pretty cool, fun use of the technology, and I went out and rented a really cool, handheld GPS unit with a moving map and waypoints, and routing and a car-key finding attachment. OK, I made up that last part, but you get the idea.

I have Homeland Security on the brain. Now, a quick Google on "GPS" and "terror" comes up with a whole slew of stories about GPS aiding in the War on Terror. Tracking packages, trucks, drivers, kids, spouses to see where they've been. GPS to guide recon drones. (Or, if you're a bad guy in Yemen, we might carry a special payload just for you.) There are occasional reports on the vulnerability of the system to terrorist or rogue state attack, or even interference from EU satellites, if there's a difference.

Still, it seems there's a downside to this, too. Geocachers ridicule the notion that someone's going to use a cache for nefarious purposes, although there have been reports from neighbors not in the loop about suspicious goings-on. No, nobody is going to start planting explosives in the canisters so they can take down a few dozen Gen-Yers out on a Sunday. That's just a lack of imagination.

What they will do is start exchanging notes, letters, and having face-to-face meetings in places that were formerly hard to meet up at. Before GPS, drop points were in cities and parks. If they were in rural areas, they were along small roads with somewhat distinctive landmarks. Now, the whole backcountry is suddenly opened up. I can encode the coordinates in a JPEG I send to my friends, and, whammo, Wahabbi flashmob. Or I could just hide the location in plain sight on a geocaching site of my own, or the official one. If it's sufficiently out of the way, it won't get much traffic. And if I'm collecting pieces of trouble or exchanging notes, nobody will know what to make of it, at least not from the comment from geocachers that I've seen.

I can't think of any good technical answer to this, short of registering GPS devices, something I find as abhorrent as registering guns. They're receivers, not transmitters, and there's no way of tracking what they're receiving, any more than the Otto Preminger could have found that radio without Peter Graves. I'm not going to stay up nights worrying about it, but now that the FBI can actually get to the Internet from their offices, it's something they might want to put a little time into.

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