How Does Niantic Detect GPS Spoofing?
Introduction of GPS Spoofing
GPS Spoofing means that you fake your GPS location, so that game servers or applications think you are somewhere else than you really are. This can be done for example with an app on your smartphone. There are also websites where you can download coordinates for specific locations, so putting those into the application/game will make it believe that you are at this certain place.
This technique can be used to farm resources much faster than normal (farming pokestops, gyms), but also allows people to play in places where they normally would not be able to go. There has been a lot of discussion around this topic since the release of Ingress, and many people think that using an app or website for GPS spoofing is against the Terms Of Service, because you are artificially changing your location.
How Does Niantic Detect GPS Spoofing
Niantic uses a server-sided check of your GPS location. They position their own probes at places of interest (POIs), and all players who interact with those POIs have to be at that certain place. If they see you interacting from an unknown or unexpected location, an alarm is raised. This way Niantic can easily tell if people are cheating by changing their position, as the coordinates of the probe will not match with your GPS coordinates. But using some techniques like VPNs or public Wifi-networks, it is possible to trick the probe into thinking that you are at the expected location. Niantic needs to find a way to let you interact with their probes, so they can’t just remove your access if they think you are spoofing.
Niantic has not given any official information about how exactly they detect GPS Spoofing. But there was an article on Wired where John Hanke said: “Our security system could see that many of these were coming from the same computer and that this computer was moving in ways it shouldn’t if it was human…”. It would make no sense for them to keep silent about what people should do to avoid getting banned for suspected cheating, and John Hanke told the journalist at Wired that they use “Human verification” to detect cheating. If you read between the lines, this is a confirmation that Niantic uses on-device checks on suspected cheaters.
How To Detect Fraud on Niantics Servers
There are different types of fraud which can happen at Ingress portals, but the most obvious one is if someone spoofs a portal where he already has deployed resonators. If there are enough resonators at this portal (8+) it’s almost certain that something fishy is going on. When colluding with other players in your faction, you could farm huge amounts of resources very easily by bringing them to high level portals. So if you see players who have access to high level portals, but their GPS location is not near the portal itself, something might be wrong with them.
Using Ingress Intel Map you can spot suspicious activity on a map very easily:
Signs of cheating from Ingress Intel Map:
– same player submitting new portals at old submissions locations
– same player deploying resonators at submitted locations of other players
– one guy standing in a specific place and deploying everything he finds. These are the most obvious signs that someone is spoofing or using fake GPS coordinates.
How Does Niantic Check If People Are Cheating By Changing Their Position?
If they detect that you are cheating (changing your position), they will ban you. It might not happen instantly, but it has happened before to people who were on the edge of what is allowed according to their terms of service. In Ingress it has been seen multiple times that they will give a warning first, but as soon as you continue to use the app as a GPS spoofer, you might get banned instantly.
There have been numerous cases where people got banned from Ingress just for having their phone set to “airplane mode”. This made it impossible for them to play normally, and thus they were forced into using a spoofing app just because Niantic’s servers couldn’t handle normal play anymore. There are also stories of complete strangers reporting players even though those players were standing in plain sight.
In Pokemon GO there was recently an incident where two well known trainers claimed that all spoofers would be banned within hours. This turned out not to be true:
Niantic is making an effort to ban all spoofers, but they have a lot of back-end work on their hands. There are also too many ways for them to accidentally ban loyal players who just have a broken GPS system on their phone. There will be shadowbans and there will be wipeouts on some level. Even if Niantic wanted to delete all accounts which were ever used with GPS spoofing, it’s very hard to do this because people might create new accounts (which was the reason why cheaters could even use fake Google accounts in Ingress).
The best option would be for Niantic to create an API where developers can register their apps as safe, so only these apps can access the game. Niantic would have full control over which apps are accepted in the game. Niantic could also add a feature to their scanners where they warn players when installing an app, and ask them if they want to continue with it. Niantic could even let scanners send information to Niantics servers so the company can track the usage of certain apps. Niantic has been working on this for years now, but only recently started to take action against spoofers in Ingress.