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SpaceX sent Starlink internet terminals to Ukraine. Users should be careful, say security experts

But using satellite services can be dangerous in times of war, as evidenced by the history of states using satellite signals to geolocate and target enemies, cybersecurity experts told CNN Business.

“If an adversary has a specialized aircraft in the air, he can detect [a satellite] “It’s not necessarily easy, but the Russians have a lot of practice tracking various signal transmitters in Syria and responding. Starlink may work for now, but anyone who sets a [Starlink] dish in Ukraine must consider it as a potential giant target. »

In short: “It can be useful, but for security reasons you don’t want to install it (or really any distinctive transmitter) in Ukraine close to where you wouldn’t want a bomb Russian falls,” Weaver said.

Shortly after this story was originally published, Musk also weighed in on Twitterstating “Important Disclaimer: Starlink is the only non-Russian communication system still operating in parts of Ukraine, so the likelihood of being targeted is high. Please use with caution.”
He went to to advise users in Ukraine “only activate Starlink when needed and place the antenna as far away from people as possible”, and to “place a light camouflage on the antenna to avoid visual detection.”

It’s unclear how many Starlink SpaceX terminals have sent to Ukraine, or how the Ukrainian government plans to use or distribute them.

SpaceX’s foray into helping Ukraine began when the country’s Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov publicly appealed to Musk on Twitter last weekend, saying, “while you’re trying to colonize Mars, Russia is trying to occupy Ukraine! space — Russian rockets attack Ukrainian civilians! We ask you to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations and call on sane Russians to stand up. It was one of several tweets Fedorov directed at various US-based tech figures, imploring them to act on Ukraine’s behalf.

Musk responded with offers of help, announced that the Starlink network was now activated in Ukraine and, this week, a truckload of user terminals – which are needed to give users access to satellite internet service – arrived.

Fedorov shared a photo online.

And on Wednesday, he shared a photo of what appeared to be an active Starlink antenna at work.

The majority of the country still has access to its normal terrestrial internet connections, despite attacks on other communications infrastructure, such as a TV tower in the capital of Kiev, by Russian invaders, according to Alp Toker, who leads internet monitoring. . close NetBlocks.

But some areas have experienced outages, Toker said.

“The largest disturbances are seen in the east, Melitopol, Mariupol, Kharkiv, and beyond Luhansk and Donetsk regions to Ukrainian-controlled regions and Severodonetsk,” Toker said via email. “Kiev fared better, as did the west of the country.”

Toker added that, in the opinion of NetBlocks, Starlink “will not bring Ukraine back online in the event of a nationwide blackout” – but the service can provide hotspots for crucial services. , such as support for journalists, resistance groups and the public. officials “lucky enough to have access to the equipment”.

But Toker also acknowledged that using the service can be dangerous: “There is always a risk associated with new technologies in war zones, where being found with unfamiliar equipment can single out journalists or activists for further scrutiny. There is also the specific risk of being traced and triangulated via [radiofrequency] emissions when it comes to telecommunications equipment.

These risks, Toker said, “must be assessed on a case-by-case basis.”

John Scott-Railton — a senior fellow at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab who has spent a decade studying hacking and surveillance in conflict zones — took to Twitter over the weekend to try to raise awareness to possible risks. He praised SpaceX’s reach, but warned that Starlink terminals can become the equivalent of painting a giant target on your back.

“It’s great to see the tech sector engaging on the subject of Ukraine. It couldn’t be a more powerful signal of global solidarity,” Scott-Railton told CNN Business. “But we have to be aware of the risks. People in a conflict zone are limited by time and resources. And we want to make sure they don’t get the wrong impression of the security of the technology we provide to their.”

The risks have nothing to do with communications being encrypted, Scott-Railton added, because the devices don’t necessarily need to be eavesdropped by the enemy – they just need to emit enough unique signals to be searched and eventually located. He also noted that Starlink is still a brand new technology, so it doesn’t necessarily have been tested in war zones to identify and assess its risks.

A U.S. military spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the matter. The US military is aware of the risks of using satellite technology in war zones. In 2003, during the war in Iraq, for example, both sides banned satellite phones because of security and intelligence risks.

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment on Starlink, nor has it responded to routine email inquiries from reporters in years. Ukrainian officials and the country’s military did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Scott-Railton pointed out that the use of satellite technology in conflict zones has – time and time again – been an underestimated risk. In 1996, for example, Russians reportedly used satellite phone signals to target and kill Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev. Russia has “decades of experience” in carrying out such attacks, he said on Twitter. Scott-Railton has also studied the role played by satellite technologies in the libyan revolution of 2011.

It’s not always clear when an adversary has figured out an enemy’s use of satellite technology, Scott-Railton added, until it’s too late.

Josh Lospinoso, CEO of Shift5, a US-based IT security startup, added in an email: “In conclusion, the deployment of SpaceX’s Starlink terminal in Ukraine could pose serious problems for Ukrainian officials who use them. … Russia could use this geolocation information. for everything from intelligence gathering and tracking to airstrikes.”

Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, has made it clear that Russia was aware of Musk’s donation – and Rogozin views it as a hostile act. In comments Wednesday translated by CNN Business, Rogozin said SpaceX’s claims that Starlink is for civilian use and meant to connect the world are “fairy tales.”

“Muscophiles say it’s amazing, it’s the light of our global cosmic exploration,” Rogozin said. “Good, [Musk] took sides. I have no problems with him. It is obvious, it is the West, which should never be trusted because it has always known chronic jealousy, among the political elites, jealousy towards our country. Look how right now they’re racing to defecate on our relationships, and who’s gonna clean it up later? It’s very dangerous what’s happening right now.”

Musk responded in a tweet.

“The civilian internet in Ukraine was experiencing some weird outages — bad weather maybe? — so SpaceX is helping fix it,” he said. wrote.