Ukraine War: Mobile networks are militarized to target troops on both sides of the conflict | world news

Ukrainian soldiers have described the dangers of using a mobile phone on the front line in the conflict with Russian-backed separatists in recent years.

“When you hear a drone, you have about five seconds to leave your position and run. The rocket will fly at that speed.”

New evidence suggests that mobile networks have now been turned into instruments of war in the current conflict, as each side tracks soldiers’ phones.

How are phones tracked on the battlefield?

Devices called cell-site simulators, which mimic a telephone mast, are parked inside drones and trucks and sent to the battlefield to pick up signals from nearby phones.

The simulators trick the phones into measuring and reporting the signal strength and direction of multiple phone masts in the area.

By analyzing these responses – whether the signal is stronger or weaker with different masts – it is possible to know where the phones are likely to be and send an artillery strike there.

It is also possible that some systems can directly identify the location of the phone when simulators connect to it, for example by accessing the phone’s internal GPS system.

Whatever method is employed – and the finer details are closely guarded military secrets – they all end up with the enemy obtaining a reasonably accurate location of whoever is using the phone.

In Ukraine, the Russians are known to use the Leer-3 electronic warfare system – consisting of two drones and a command truck – as a means of locating Ukrainian forces.

This system can pick up more than 2,000 phones within a 3.7 mile radius, potentially finding a whole host of enemy positions.

A Leer-3 command truck and a drone photographed at a Russian military exhibition. Photo: Vitaly Kuzmin.

Ukrainian forces are believed to be using similar technology. In mid-March, US officials told the New York Times that at least one Russian general had been killed after a phone call he made was picked up by Ukrainian intelligence.

The presence of these electronic warfare systems means that ringing the bell at home has become “the digital version of carelessly lighting a cigarette at night”, according to researchers from the University of Copenhagen.

It even prompted the Ukrainian military to issue advice to its soldiers when fighting Russian-backed separatists in the eastern region of Donbass, listed below.

Ukrainian Army Order

1. Leave your own SIM card at home.

2. The best place to get a SIM card is in the conflict zone itself.

3. If you plan to make a phone call, march at least 400-500m from squad positions.

4. Don’t go alone, bring an armed friend with you for cover.

5. The best place to make a phone call is in places with lots of civilians, preferably in recently liberated towns.

6. Always keep your phone turned off. Your life depends on it. Grad missiles will hit your entire team.

7. Do not accept recharge codes or cards from premises. The young woman who brought you a recharge card from the nearby village may be working for the enemy. At present, the FSB and the SBU have to process huge amounts of data to identify the cell phones of our own people and the enemy. Don’t make it easy for them.

8. Watch your comrades – a friend calls his girlfriend and about an hour later your position is bombed or attacked.

9. Remember that the enemy could eavesdrop on your conversations no matter what SIM card or telecom provider you are using.

Russian tactics

Many of the same systems used to locate telephones can be used to intercept communications.

This could help explain current Russian military tactics.

Some were surprised that Ukraine’s mobile network coverage remained extensive, allowing Ukrainians and their armed forces to use it if they so choose.

But it is possible that the Russians did not attack the telecommunications infrastructure so heavily to be able to glean intelligence on the Ukrainian calls.

It also gives an opportunity for the Ukrainian forces to do the same – which is likely to be a problem for the Russian forces given that their encrypted communication system – called ERA – does not work well, forcing them to use radio frequencies open and civilian telephones.

Sam Cranny-Evans of the defense think tank RUSI thinks there are additional explanations for the continued phone coverage in Ukraine.

“Destroying a mobile phone network is difficult, there are lots of cells everywhere with good coverage. In Mariupol and Iziyum for example, they only recently started to lose all access to their mobile phone networks after a few weeks of fighting, and even then they can access it in some cases.”

Mr Cranny-Evans also pointed out that the Russians could use the network to operate their drones and that they might not want to use resources to destroy it, as it does not fit the Russians’ narrative of “liberating” Ukraine.

And while countermeasures can be taken to guard against eavesdropping, it’s not as simple as turning off your phone.

John Scott Railton, a senior researcher at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, said that by gaining access to a phone’s underlying operating system, an enemy could hack it into appearing while it was actually turned on, which would make it a shining beacon on the battlefield.

Removing the battery from the phone is one solution, but this is often difficult to do with modern smartphones.

Ukrainian troops remain confident
Troops can use countermeasures to guard against eavesdropping

Bored and bored

Another set of vulnerabilities is not in the phones, but in the behavior of the soldiers using them.

If they manage to use their devices without inviting a missile attack, they may become complacent and not realize that the enemy is listening to their calls.

Mr Railton said: “The consequences of this are not always immediately apparent, which can lead to groups developing security practices that do not take into account how much surveillance they are under.”

“Perhaps they are not valuable enough targets to immediately send a missile, but they could be valuable enough to track and glean intelligence.”

And there’s another vulnerability that can often prove fatal: boredom. As the war drags on, it becomes more dangerous.

When researchers interviewed frontline soldiers in Donbass in 2017, they found that they generally used their phones despite knowing the dangers. One told researchers:

“Sitting out there in the dugouts, trenches and bunkers for days, even weeks, doing nothing, people start to lose their minds. You need something to take your mind off things.”

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