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Cyber security experts have predicted that Russian forces will wipe out at least some Ukrainian phone lines and internet services as part of a ground invasion. It didn’t – although Russia appears to be suffering because of it.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses Ukrainians on his Telegram account. Ukrainian hackers organize against Russian forces. Ordinary Ukrainians share photos and videos on the ground on social media detailing the impact of Russia’s destruction.
But cyber and national security experts believe that Russia has three good reasons to refrain from disrupting phone and data networks:
– Russian intelligence services can eavesdrop on phone calls and emails, as well as collect geolocation data and other metadata.
– The Russian military uses Ukrainian commercial networks to communicate.
– Russian forces do not want to destroy the infrastructure they will need if they succeed in invading Ukraine.
“if [Russian forces] “But overall, they will want the phones to keep working in Kyiv because they can listen to it,” said James Lewis, senior vice president and director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Ariel Barnes, a former senior Israeli electronic intelligence official, agrees: “Imagine if you knew the phone numbers of certain people or leaders or soldiers, or soldiers. You can see the movement. You can see where the forces are concentrated.”
Russian attempts to hack Ukrainian networks are made easier because countries use similar technologies in their networks. Wired reported in 2012 that both countries required service providers to install a piece of surveillance technology that would allow governments to tap phone lines and record calls.
Moreover, prior to the 2014 annexation of Crimea, most communications service providers in Ukraine were owned by Russian or Russian-Ukrainian businessmen, giving Moscow the opportunity to rely on the private sector to help penetrate networks, said Chris Kubica, a war specialist. Cyber and traveled to Ukraine before the invasion to help a nuclear power facility prepare for Russian cyber threats.
“It’s easy to put surveillance on communications if you have a foothold,” Kubica said. “Currently [the Russians] We have blueprints, probably in the back doors.”
Lewis said gaining this access could affect decision-making in Russia. “They don’t ask, ‘Can we come in?’ ‘ They ask, ‘Is it better for us to let it continue to operate and use, or to shut it down?’
Even before the invasion, Russian surveillance of Ukrainian telephone networks was widespread. On numerous occasions, US officials have linked Russia to leaked phone conversations between Ukrainian political elites and Western officials. The old KGB building still stands in the center of Kyiv, and is a constant reminder of how far Moscow has come to Ukraine. Zelensky himself uses a secure satellite phone to communicate with US officials, according to a CNN report.
Hiding on her finger
Meanwhile, rather than stick to more secure military lines of communications, “the Russians themselves use local communications networks — and, more broadly, local communications infrastructure as well — while conducting their operations,” said Shane Huntley, who leads Google Threat Analys Group, that track and fight government-backed cyber attacks. “I can’t speak about their intentions, but one possibility is that they think that if they uproot communications networks, it would actually hamper their operations as well.”
Ukraine’s State Service for Special Communications and Information Protection, which coordinates cyber operations in the country, said last week that Russian military personnel stole mobile phones from Ukrainians after phone companies cut network access to phones with Russian numbers.
“After depriving them of the opportunity to call their own numbers, the occupying forces are increasingly withdrawing phones from citizens. We call on the Ukrainians whose cell phones were taken by representatives of the hostile forces to report to the operator as soon as possible and ask for it [to] “Block the stolen phone,” the Ukrainian agency said in Telegram.
The tweets are also claimed to show this Some Russian invading forces used inexpensive walkie-talkies to communicate. Hacking groups including unknown claim to cut off Russian military communications. If these claims are true, it will help explain why Russian soldiers resort to commercial networks to communicate.
Keeping the house safe
The other explanation is simply that Russia expected to win so quickly that it felt it could keep the critical telecommunications infrastructure intact that it would soon need to run the country.
“If you wanted to own the house, you wouldn’t burn it down,” said Lewis.
Even if Russia succeeds in claiming Ukraine, taking over existing telecommunications infrastructure in the region is already difficult without having to spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars building entirely new cell towers. When Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, it took Moscow about three years to gain full control of the region’s mobile infrastructure. That’s despite this cellular network remaining intact during the invasion, according to a 2020 research paper from Citizen Lab, RIPE NCC Internet Registry, and the Japan-based IIJ Institute of Innovation.
It was not a simple process. Ukraine’s Ukrtelecom ran the network for nearly a year after the annexation in parts of Crimea, until armed guards surrounded the company’s offices and prevented employees from entering, according to TeleGeography, a consulting firm. Crimean service providers have relied on Ukrainian infrastructure while Russian state-owned provider Rostelecom has laid a new submarine cable through the Kerch Strait to connect Crimea directly to Russia without having to go through Ukraine.
Of course, the population of Crimea is about 20 times less than the population of Ukraine. So the difficulty that Russia had in taking over Crimea’s phone networks only points to the challenges that would be involved in taking control of the Ukrainian phone system, even if it remains intact.
But as Chris Krebs, the former director of CISA, pointed out in a hypothetical Twitter event Wednesday as the invasion continues, Russia’s strategic calculus could change at any moment and the country could decide to start bombing its communications infrastructure or send in state-sponsored hackers to shut it down completely.
And if that happens, it could be a clear sign of how Russia views the odds of winning: “[Russian President Vladimir] Of all the people, Putin knows the intelligence benefits of maintaining and operating the networks, and expects to inherit them soon,” said Lewis, of CSIS. “It would be a sign of the Russians capitulating if they started blowing up critical infrastructure.”
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