The Trolley Problem: GPS Used for Good and Bad

The Trolley Problem: GPS Used for Good and Bad

Here are another few stories of businesses profiting from space services. In this case, agencies and companies are using signals from the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites to make life better and less expensive for people. Well, at least one of the stories is about that. The other story…not so much. It demonstrates the opposite: deliberately making life more expensive and inconvenient.

However, both stories are examples of using a positioning, navigation, and timing service in mass transportation, a method of travel for many commuters in Europe (I know, it’s a strange commuting concept for U.S. citizens to understand). This service is nearly ubiquitous, and GPS, specifically, is designed to be reliable. 

People with noggins much more prominent than mine did all sorts of math, probably with strange squiggles, to get it to a gold standard of reliability and precision. They incorporated that standard primarily to provide the U.S. military an edge in combat. The U.S. military relies on the system to get soldiers and tanks from point A to point B in the desert, to guide weapons, and to assist other technologies in its arsenal. 

The service is free and available to anyone using a GPS receiver. Because of GPS’ obtainable availability (primarily through smartphones), creative companies are using the service in ways the military didn’t imagine, such as herding cattle, which I wrote about in “Until the Cows Come Home.” The following is a different implementation from businesses and organizations using those GPS signals.

Geofences, Trams, and Cars

A little over eight years ago, I happened upon a story (pages 46-47) of an interesting use of space-based technology for city trams. In the story, a transportation agency working with SPIE Belgium in the Belgian region of Flanders was experimenting with a project humbly titled: “Traffic light priority for public transport based on short distance radio for coastal tram.” The project aimed to (and continues to seek) “...investigate and implement a tram priority system based on short distance radio.”

The traffic authority in Flanders wanted to experiment with potentially upgrading its coastal tram network. It would remove the inductive loops trams used to activate lights and gates to cross traffic safely. The inductive loops are fragile. They require frequent maintenance and/or repair (to the tune, at the time, of about $156,000 annually). And that maintenance/repair is close to or on roads, impacting automobile traffic.

Moving away from inductive loops under tram tracks to GPS/radio systems in every tram had everything to do with money and how using the GPS/radio system would help save it. Going with the new system would

  • Reduce the systems’ installation and maintenance costs 
  • Result in less inconvenience for road users (because there’s less installation and maintenance work)
  • Increase tram and traffic flow reliability
  • Make it easier to change the geofence’s location when required

Installing GPS and radio equipment on the trams allowed the transportation authority to create geofenced areas before and after tram crossings. The trams would communicate (using “short distance radio) with crossing light/gate equipment as they entered the geofenced areas and stop communicating when they left them

The result? GPS enables some 70 Belgian coastal trams to cross traffic safely and quickly while saving money. The estimated cost to install the GPS/radio systems on trams (in 2019) was close to $323,000. The new system should pay for itself in a little over two years.

“Should,” because while there’s a desire to expand the system from the initial 70 coastal trams to Belgium’s other trams, it’s not clear the system is in place. That’s despite hopeful announcements that the system would be in all 313 tram cars by 2020. But 2020 was full of…challenges. Based on Belgium’s success with its initial system deployment, it’s probable that the GPS/radio system will be in all of the nation’s trams soon.

Anti-competitive Geofencing (or, Sabotaging A Customer’s Business)

Contrast Belgium’s beneficial use of GPS with a story that just came out of Poland. The story came to my attention through Louis Rossman on YouTube: “Forget about Sony and Netflix, there's DRM in public trains now....” 

For those unfamiliar with the acronym, DRM=digital rights management. To be clear, companies using DRM believe all their customers are thieves. These companies attempt to lock down movies, songs, and code using systems, typically in ways that make customers’ experiences worse, not better. Today, it’s usually implemented under the guise of streaming. Rossman’s opinions of DRM are similar to mine.  

Rossman referenced a social media thread and an article about the Polish company Newag’s DRM attempts. According to both authors, the company had put measures in place to stop train owners from using third-party repair shops to fix trains it manufactured. The third-party repair shop in this instance is Serwis Pojazdów Szynowych (SPS). 

Polish train service Lower Silesian Railways (LSR) had contracted with SPS to maintain and repair its Newag-manufactured trains. According to the article, SPS’ bid was lower than Newag’s by ~$750,000. In 2022, SPS was supposed to have finished maintenance on one of LSR’s trains. It had followed Newag’s maintenance procedures, documented in a 20,000-page maintenance manual. But despite following those procedures, the train wouldn’t start upon reassembly.

SPS technicians double-checked everything done during the train maintenance, going through the manuals as they did so. Everything they saw made them believe the train should be running–but it wasn’t. If SPS couldn’t get the train out on schedule, it faced daily monetary penalties until the train became operational. So, SPS, in its desperation, contracted with hackers to comb through the train’s software code to see if there was some weird conflict going on there.

It turns out that code was causing problems–but it was deliberate. What the code contained is where GPS comes in. 

Apparently, Newag had inserted coordinates in the code that geofenced the areas where SPS conducted train maintenance. According to the hackers, the code would keep the train from running if a train spent more than ten days in one of those geofenced maintenance areas. Those instructions answered the question as to why SPS was having no luck starting the Newag train that it had worked on–the software had locked out anyone (but Newag) from operating the train.

There would have been no story if Newag had included a way to turn off the lock in its maintenance manuals. This is because a company doing the right thing by its customers is so routine that it’s not that interesting. But it didn’t, even though Newag had information on how to undo that lockout. That is evident because the hackers discovered a way to unlock the train while trying to understand what kept it from starting. 

It turns out that a particular sequence of button pushes (akin to entering a classic cheat code using a game controller) on the train’s console stopped the lockout. The hackers followed the sequence, and–voila–the train ran. SPS managed to get the train to LSR before the penalties kicked in. Presumably, if SPS had been unsuccessful, Newag would have been called in to “work” on the train. It probably would have charged an extremely exorbitant price, entered the sequence, and then let the train sit for a couple of weeks (to make it look like it was being “repaired”) before returning it to LSR. 

There’s no customer-friendly reason for code in train software that geofences the train manufacturer’s competitors. Geofencing might make sense if coupled with other equipment to help automate crossings, as Belgium does with its trams. But clearly, it took effort on Newag’s part (or someone in Newag) to find out where the competition does its train maintenance, code in the geofence using those coordinates, intertwine the operation of the train with that code to make it stop, and insert a code sequence to disable the lockout. It wasn’t an accident. 

The manufacturer’s intent of the code became much more apparent after the hackers’ success in getting that train running: Newag updated the software for all of its trains. The update disabled the button sequence to unlock the trains. According to the article, Newag’s trains have other shady things going on with them, all with the goal of forcing its customers to have their trains maintained and fixed by Newag. 

In both of these and other cases, positioning, navigation, and timing-based space services are valuable to businesses. It’s up to those businesses to decide whether to make customers’ lives better or treat them like marks.

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