Ukrainian soldiers have described the dangers of using a mobile phone on the front lines of 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 that fast.”
New evidence suggests that mobile networks are now being weaponized as an instrument of warfare 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 phone mast, are placed inside drones and trucks and sent out into the battlefield to pick up signals from nearby phones.
The simulators trick phones into measuring and reporting the signal strength and direction of various phone towers in the area.
By analyzing these responses, whether the signal is stronger or weaker with different masts, it is possible to figure out where the phones are likely to be and send an artillery strike there.
It is also possible that some systems can directly identify the phone’s location when simulators are connected to them, for example by accessing the phone’s internal GPS system.
Whichever method is employed, and the finer details are closely guarded military secrets, they all end with the enemy getting a reasonably accurate location of whoever is using the phone.
In Ukraine, the Russians are known to be using the Leer-3 electronic warfare system, made up of two drones and a command truck, as a means of locating Ukrainian forces.
This system can detect more than 2,000 phones within a range of 3.7 miles, which could allow finding a large number of enemy positions.
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 was killed after Ukrainian intelligence intercepted a mobile phone call he made.
The presence of these electronic warfare systems has meant that calling home has become “the digital version of carelessly lighting up a cigarette at night”, according to researchers at the University of Copenhagen.
He even prompted the Ukrainian military to give advice to its soldiers when they were fighting Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas region, listed below.
Order of the Ukrainian Army
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, walk at least 400-500m away from the squad positions.
4. Don’t walk away alone, take an armed friend with you for cover.
5. The best place to make a phone call is in places with a large civilian population, preferably in recently liberated towns.
6. Always keep your phone turned off. Your life depends on that. Grad missiles will hit your entire squad.
7. Do not accept recharge codes or cards from stores. The young lady who brought you a recharge card from the neighboring town may be working for the enemy. Right now the FSB and SBU have to process huge amounts of data to identify the mobile phones of our own people and the enemy. Don’t make their job easier.
8. Keep an eye on your comrades: A friend calls his girlfriend and an hour later his position is bombed or attacked.
9. Remember, the enemy could be listening to your conversations no matter what SIM card or telecom operator you are using.
Many of the same systems that are used to locate telephones can be used to intercept communications.
This could help explain current Russian military tactics.
Some have been surprised that Ukraine’s mobile network coverage has remained widespread, allowing Ukrainians and their armed forces to use it if they wish.
But the Russians may not have targeted the telecommunications infrastructure so much that they can get intelligence from Ukrainian calls.
It also gives the Ukrainian forces an opportunity to do the same, something that is likely to be a problem for the Russian forces due to reports that their encrypted communication system, called ERA, has been malfunctioning, forcing them to use open radio and civil telephones.
Sam Cranny-Evans of the RUSI defense think tank believes there are additional explanations for continued phone coverage in Ukraine.
“Destroying a cell phone network is difficult, there are many cells everywhere with good coverage. In Mariupol and Iziyum, for example, they recently started losing all access to their cell phone networks after a few weeks of fighting, and even then they can get access in some cases.
Cranny-Evans also stressed that the Russians could be using the network to operate their drones and may not want to use resources to destroy it as it does not fit with the Russian narrative of “liberating” Ukraine.
And while countermeasures can be taken to protect against eavesdropping, it’s not as simple as turning off the phone.
John Scott Railton, a senior researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, said that by accessing a phone’s underlying operating system, an enemy could hack it into appearing off when it was actually on, turning it into a shining beacon in the field of battle.
Taking the battery out of the phone is one solution, but this is often difficult to do with modern smartphones.
blasé and bored
Another set of vulnerabilities are not related to phones, but to the behavior of soldiers using them.
If they manage to use their devices without inviting a missile attack, they may become complacent and not realize the enemy is listening to their calls.
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 they are monitored.”
“They might not be valuable enough targets to send a missile right away, but they could be valuable enough to track and get intelligence.”
And there is another vulnerability that can often prove fatal: boredom. As the war progresses, this becomes more dangerous.
When researchers interviewed soldiers on the front lines in Donbas in 2017, they found that they normally used their phones despite knowing the dangers. One told investigators:
“Sitting in dugouts, trenches and bunkers for days and even weeks with nothing to do, people start to lose their minds. You need something to take your mind off things.”
The Data and forensic analysis The team is a multi-functional unit dedicated to providing transparent journalism for Sky News. We collect, analyze and visualize data to tell data-driven stories. We combine traditional reporting skills with advanced analytics from satellite imagery, social media, and other open source information. Through multimedia storytelling, our goal is to better explain the world and, at the same time, show how our journalism is done.