Homing in on the GPS Snitch

The dizzying pace of progress in GPS navigation, Internet mapping and mobile data support has reached an intriguing confluence; with the introduction of devices such as the Blackline GPS Snitch, live tracking is now in the hands of the masses.

For decades, the “homing device” has been a centerpiece of spy movies and comic books, while science fiction has offered its Orwellian variants of real-time tracking. Batman kept a supply of electronic trackers on his utility belt; James Bond trailed communist agents back to their hideouts. Similar technology is now very real and available for less glamorous applications such as up-to-the-minute tracking of important deliveries. Teenaged drivers and errant spouses take note; you don't need much imagination to guess where such devices might be used. Espionage just ain't what it used to be.

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The GPS Snitch was obtained for $299 from Spy Exchange, a local retailer specializing in surveillance gear and related items. An activation fee and service subscription is also required, all handled through the same website that accommodates real-time monitoring. A user with no prior secret agent experience can, on day one, plot the changing location of the GPS Snitch on a Google Map, satellite photo or hybrid of the two. The Snitch can also send position updates to a cell phone in the form of SMS text messages.

Perhaps the most intriguing feature is the Snitch's ability to operate from locations that normally interfere with GPS reception. From a moving vehicle, the unit was shown to track location, direction and speed while hiding in the glove compartment and in the trunk. Let's spy on the spyware now, with a private eye on the enabling technology.

The Snitch is built around a pair of off-the-shelf modules, bolstered by substantial supporting circuitry. Providing cellular connectivity, the MC56 from Cinterion Wireless Modules (formerly Siemens) is an 850/1,800/1,900-MHz GSM/GPRS solution, capable of voice support but focused here on data transfer. The MC56 board features an Infineon PMB7850 GSM/GPRS baseband processor supported by M36W0T604 multichip SDRAM/flash memory from STMicroelectronics. The quad-band GSM transceiver, Skyworks SKY74963, appears here with companion front-end module SKY77500 handling antenna switching and transmission power amplification. The module interfaces to a relatively substantial Flex PCB antenna, a SIM card socket and a board-to-board connection with the main PCB.

The GPS module, apparently optimized for low-signal conditions, is supplied by Navman of New Zealand and marketed as the “Jupiter 30.” At a little over 25-mm square and about 3-mm tall, the module is clearly aimed at OEMs in need of embedded capability.

The module houses a SiRF “SiRFStar 3” GSC3e/LP multichip package containing both the GPS baseband processor and GPS receiver, on a small PCB with separate 512-kB NOR flash memory (SST 39VF400) and peripheral circuitry. Instead of a GPS-specific LNA, Navman chose the Infineon BGA622L7, a high-gain, wideband silicon-germanium device externally configurable for the 1.575-GHz GPS band. The GPS module is soldered directly to the main PCB and also interfaces with a sizable (20 x 20 x 4 mm) 1575.42-MHz ceramic patch antenna (HA-1575C20T4) from Hankook Antenna.

The main PCB joins the two modules and supports the GPS antenna, SIM card socket and motion switch, along with some control and power-management circuitry. Of particular interest is the apparent brains of the operation, a TI mixed-signal processor (MSP430F1611) supported by 16-MB SLC NAND flash memory from STMicroelectronics (NAND128W3A2BN6).

The non-removable 3.7-volt Li-Ion internal battery has a relatively hefty 2,000-mAh rating, lending credence to the manufacturer's claim of seven days standby time. The external DC supply, however, runs at 12 volts. As even the most amateur detective might guess, this allows for direct connection to a car battery; a hardwiring kit is sold separately.

In an era where science fiction routinely becomes science fact, the appearance of a device like the Blackline GPS Snitch should not come as a surprise. We've all mapped our own driveways and rooftops in satellite photos, witnessed the stunning speed and accuracy of a good GPS system and watched as cell phones evolved into portable Internet devices. It was only a matter of time, and design effort, until these elements were integrated for real-time tracking.

Hang on a little longer; the transporter beam should be available soon.

Bob Widenhofer is a product analyst at Portelligent, a TechInsights company that produces teardown reports and related industry research on wireless, mobile and personal electronics.

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