The use of mobile phones in Russia’s attack on Ukraine is changing the nature of modern warfare and posing new challenges for soldiers that could turn into future conflicts.
The Russian military is reportedly targeting its Ukrainian adversaries using sophisticated electronic warfare systems. In turn, Ukrainians are intercepting unencrypted communications between Russian troops. And both sides are using footage captured by mobile phone cameras to present their side of the war.
“Both sides who use unsecured mobile phones are at great risk,” retired US Army Major John Spencer, president of Urban Warfare Studies with the Madison Policy Forum, told Digital Trends in an interview. “Signals from these phones can be captured, geo-located, and then targeted for artillery or bombing attacks.”
A juicy target for Ukrainian intelligence has been simple conversations between Russian troops in the area. The Russians surprisingly continue to use regular commercial phones, rather than turning to encrypted communications as standard procedure with most Western armies.
Unfortunately for Russian soldiers, most of their military-grade radios have not been modernized, Adam Fisch, CEO of the data platform Ditto, said in an interview. As a result, the Russians rely on commercial mobile devices and networks to exchange tactical information for fire support coordination and maneuvers.
Spencer said the Ukrainian military was able to listen in on communications, target senior commanders for aerial bombardment, and intercept valuable messages about military order, movements and morale issues.
“The Ukrainian military is aware of the dangers and gives cautious instructions not to use unsecured communications,” Spencer said.
Brigadier General Robert Spalding, a senior US Air Force leader, said in an interview with Digital Trends that cell phones are more convenient for soldiers than clumsy military radios, but they are unsafe. Military equipment is safe and rigid, but often the systems are not interoperable.
“For example, I know a country where the Army and Navy have different systems for strategic communications,” Spalding said. “This means they cannot communicate. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Russians have chosen to use cell phones. However, doing so leaves them vulnerable in the field.”
The problem is that regular mobile phones were not made to hide users.
The problem is that regular mobile phones were not made to hide users. Spalding said all phones leave a digital footprint that can be easily accessed through software development kit (SDK) data. This data provides a geographic location that when combined with other information can identify the user.
“For example, let’s say you know an entity is operating in a certain location, you can buy data for that location,” Spalding said. “Then you can see what the equipment there does and where they go. By looking at where the equipment goes, you can identify whose it is.”
Another way that opposing forces can identify users is to hack into the cellular network itself, Spalding noted. This allows them to not only identify location data, but also listen in on calls. Some police departments and armies use stingrays, a method that allows you to hijack a cellular signal and retrieve the same data as if you had hacked into a cellular network. “The Stingray works by tricking the phone into thinking it’s a network,” Spalding said.
A military equipment supplier, ADS, Inc. Stingray devices, also known as cell-site simulators, can pick up the signals of nearby cell phones, information technology expert Tim Redfearn told Digital Trends in an interview. Users can identify locations by tricking cell phones to connect with multiple masts in the simulator area. “This helps both sides identify the location of enemy troops, and often leads to artillery or air strikes,” he said.
Ukrainians are also turning to ordinary mobile users for intelligence on how to find their enemies. Spencer said civilians used their mobile phones to upload videos and photos of the Russian military attack.
“This allows the Ukrainian military and open-source intelligence to gather very specific information about not only where the Russians were/are, but what unit and what type of equipment,” Spencer said.
Mobile phones themselves have become targets. According to reports, Russian troops displaced residents from their apartments in the suburbs of Kyiv, held them captive in basements, and confiscated many of their cell phones and laptops under threat of hanging.
Unlike many previous wars, Ukraine is likely to have more cell phones than people.
Unlike many previous wars, Ukraine is likely to have more cell phones than people, Spencer said. The rise in cell phones means more sensors to capture Russian movements.
“As this trend continues, it is as if war is taking place in one area and each of us is witnessing every incident, every detail, every firepower, every death,” Spencer said. “It is changing how we motivate soldiers to fight and how political will is acquired, contested and lost.”
Mobile phones are being used by both sides of the Ukraine conflict as a means of propaganda. The Ukrainian government set up a hotline for Russian families to track down any information about their relatives who were captured. Spencer said the very urgency afforded by mobile communications meant that the walls between the combat soldier and the home – and vice versa – are gone on the battlefield of today.
“The captured Russian soldiers were often given a mobile phone by Ukrainians so they could call home,” Spencer said. “It’s very different. It affects their willingness to fight and the families’ willingness to support the war.”
The outcome of the conflict in Ukraine may ultimately depend on which side wins the information war and that, in large part, will be waged on mobile phones. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has won billions of dollars in aid for his country through skillful use of appeals on television and the Internet. Meanwhile, Russian leader Vladimir Putin has been relatively silent in presenting his argument for war.
“In the West, the purpose in war has been to use force to achieve political results,” Spalding said. “What authoritarian regimes have discovered is that tech companies can globalize political warfare by using the same tools to make you a better consumer.”