Russia-Ukraine War: How Both Sides Use Cell Phone Signals to Track Opposition Troops
Mobile phones ping signals to nearby communications towers, allowing both Ukrainian and Russian soldiers to track the movements of opposition forces
April 11, 2022
Mobile phones have captured very revealing and disturbing images of how the war is developing in Ukraine, but the technology is also used by both Russia and Ukraine to gain a military advantage.
The devices, whether they are the latest smartphone or older phones that can only make calls and text messages, will be in the pockets of many Russian and Ukrainian soldiers, allowing each side to track the movements of opposition troops.
Mobile phones send signals to nearby communication towers, and establish a connection that allows people to make a call or go online. The pinging of these towers is often used by police forces in the case of missing persons, with signals from three towers used to triangulate a telephone site within an area of about 1 square kilometer.
That principle is now used by Ukrainian and Russian soldiers to track down opposition forces. “You can just as easily 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 phones, taking up space for more than 2,000 phones within 6 kilometers. 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 received one of his outgoing calls.
“Anyone who has access to the tower’s information can, of course, triangulate positions, and with the ISTAR integration [intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance] systems today, it could be a matter of moments from discovery to launching a missile or firing a grenade, Woodward said.
Communication disruptions and incorrect plans mean that the Russian army’s secure communication system has been unreliable since the invasion on February 24, forcing it to rely on mobile phones, military analysts believe. And many members of the Ukrainian army, made up of a large number of volunteers, may not be aware of the dangers of having telephones in a combat situation.
“The bottom line is that personal cell phones have no place on the battlefield,” says Woodward. Complex military radio systems use encryption and spread spectrum techniques, which change the frequency of a radio signal by injecting random packets of noise, helping to avoid detection. However, mobile phone technology is easy to utilize.
Smartphones, in particular, use sophisticated Global Positioning Systems (GPS). “Anything that transmits radio waves can be used to track people, and smart devices drop metadata that can be used to target groups or individuals,” says Woodward.
The same metadata, such as a caller’s and recipient’s phone number, can also be used to bomb troops with propaganda. “We have seen many examples of soldiers from both sides receiving calls and threatening messages,” said Yevgeniy Golovchenko at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. “We have also seen family members get conversations as a way to intimidate and demoralize 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 incorrect messages that their relatives were dead and were waging psychological warfare to turn public opinion against the occupation of Afghanistan, he says.
On April 1, the Ukrainian intelligence service announced that 5,000 text messages had been sent by Russia to the mobile phones of Ukrainian army officers and state security members in the northeastern city of Kharkiv, urging them to surrender their weapons and surrender. Ukrainian spies claimed that Russia’s propaganda project cost $ 2,000 a month.
Such strategies are not exclusive to Russia. An adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister has said the country “regularly” sends similar messages to Russian soldiers urging them to give up their military equipment in exchange for a cash reward. A Russian soldier, known as “Mischa”, has been promised $ 10,000 by the end of the war and the opportunity to apply for Ukrainian citizenship, according to the adviser.
This development shows how important mobile phones can be in modern warfare. “Every soldier with a telephone is a data point and generates data about themselves,” says Golovchenko. “Suddenly we have a lot of data that you would not have otherwise – and this data can be used to kill people.”
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