Science

Russia-Ukraine war: How both sides are using mobile phone

Mobile phones ping signals to nearby communications towers, allowing both Ukrainian and Russian soldiers to track the movement of opposition forces

Technology



11 April 2022

A member of the Ukrainian territorial defence units talks on their phone during observation of Russian troops movements around the village of Velyka Dymerka, 40km east of Kyiv, on 9 March

A member of the Ukrainian territorial defence units talks on a phone near the village of Velyka Dymerka on 9 March

DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images

Mobile phones have captured much revealing and distressing footage of how the war is unfolding in Ukraine, but the technology is also being utilised by both Russia and Ukraine to eke out a military advantage.

The devices, whether they are the latest smartphone or older phones capable of just calls and texts, will be in the pockets of many Russian and Ukrainian soldiers, allowing each side to track the movements of opposition troops.

Mobile phones broadcast signals to nearby communications towers, establishing a connection that allows people to make a call or go online. The pinging of these towers is frequently used by police forces in missing person cases, with signals from three towers used to triangulate a phone’s location to within an area of about 1 square kilometre.

That principle is now being used by Ukrainian and Russian soldiers to track opposition forces. “You may as well paint a target on your back,” says Alan Woodward at the University of Surrey, UK.

A Russian system, called Leer-3, launches two drones that mimic mobile phone towers, picking up the location of more than 2000 phones within a 6-kilometre range. When it comes to the Ukrainian side, US officials told The New York Times in March that at least one Russian general has been killed after Ukrainian intelligence picked up one of his outgoing calls.

“Anyone who has access to the tower information can obviously triangulate positions, and with integration ISTAR [intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance] systems today, it can be a matter of moments from detection to launching a missile or firing a shell,” says Woodward.

Communication breakdowns and flawed plans mean the Russian army’s secure communication systems have been unreliable since its invasion on 24 February, forcing it to rely on mobile phones, believe military analysts. And many members of the Ukrainian army, which is made up of a considerable number of volunteers, may be unaware of the dangers of having phones in a combat situation.

“The bottom line is that personal mobile phones have no place on the battlefield,” says Woodward. Complex military radio systems use encryption and spread spectrum techniques, which alter the frequency of a radio signal by injecting random packets of noise, helping to avoid detection. Mobile phone technology, however, is easy to exploit.

Smartphones, in particular, use sophisticated global positioning systems (GPS). “Anything that transmits radio waves can be used to track people, and smart devices are dripping with metadata that can be used to target groups or individuals,” says Woodward.

That same metadata, such as a caller’s and recipient’s phone numbers, can also be used to bombard troops with propaganda. “We’ve seen many examples of soldiers from both sides getting calls and threatening messages,” says Yevgeniy Golovchenko at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. “We’ve also seen family members getting calls as a way of intimidating and demoralising the other side.”

A similar method was used against NATO troops stationed in the Baltic states, according to Golovchenko, as well as against coalition forces in Afghanistan. Relatives of members of Danish forces stationed in Afghanistan received messages incorrectly telling them that their relatives were dead, waging psychological warfare designed to turn public opinion against occupation of Afghanistan, he says.

On 1 April, Ukraine’s intelligence service announced that 5000 text messages had been sent by Russia to the mobile phones of Ukrainian army officers and state security members in the north-eastern city of Kharkiv, urging them to give up their arms and surrender. Ukrainian spies claimed that Russia’s propaganda project cost $2000 a month.

Such strategies aren’t exclusive to Russia. An adviser to Ukraine’s minister of interior affairs has said the country is “regularly” sending similar messages to Russian soldiers, exhorting them to give up their military equipment in exchange for a cash reward. One Russian soldier, known as “Mischa”, has been promised $10,000 at the end of the war and the opportunity to apply for Ukrainian citizenship, according to the adviser.

These developments show just how important mobile phones can be in modern warfare. “Each soldier with a phone is a data point and generates data about themselves,” says Golovchenko. “All of a sudden, we have a lot of data you wouldn’t have otherwise – and this data can be used to kill people.”

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