SpaceX sent Starlink internet terminals to Ukraine. They could paint a ‘giant target’ on users’ backs, experts say

New York
CNN Business

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk shipped a truckload of Starlink antennas, which can be used to connect to the company’s satellite internet service, to Ukraine this week, responding to a request from the country’s deputy prime minister amid fears of that Ukrainians could lose access to the Internet if Russia continues its attacks on communications infrastructure.

But the use of satellite services can be dangerous in times of war, as evidenced by a 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, it can detect [a satellite] signal and locate it,” Nicholas Weaver, a security researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, said by email. “It’s not necessarily easy, but the Russians have a lot of practice tracking various signal emitters in Syria and responding. Starlink may work for the time being, but anyone setting up a [Starlink] serving in Ukraine needs to consider it as a potential giant target.”

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

Shortly after this story was originally published, Musk also weighed in. Twitter, saying: “Important warning: Starlink is the only non-Russian communications system still working in some parts of Ukraine, so the probability of being attacked is high. Please use with caution.”

he went to advise users in Ukraine to “turn on Starlink only when necessary and place the antenna as far as possible from people” and to “place light camouflage over the antenna to avoid visual detection”.

It’s unclear how many Starlink terminals SpaceX shipped to Ukraine, nor is it clear how the Ukrainian government plans to use or distribute them.

SpaceX’s push to help Ukraine began when the country’s deputy prime minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, issued a public plea to Musk on Twitter last weekend, saying, “While you are trying to colonize Mars, Russia is trying to occupy Ukraine! As their rockets successfully land from space, Russian rockets attack the Ukrainian civilian population! We ask that you provide Ukraine with Starlink stations and turn to sane Russians to stand up.” It was one of a series of tweets Fedorov addressed to various US-based tech figureheads, imploring them to take action on Ukraine’s behalf.

Musk responded with offers of help, announcing that the Starlink network was now activated in Ukraine, and this week a truckload of user terminals, which are needed to provide users with 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 in operation.

Fedorov later acknowledged that he had seen the warning Musk posted on Twitter about the security issues. writing to answer: “Sure… We will use them for the Ukrainians also after our victory”.

Most of the country still has access to its normal Earth-based internet connections, despite attacks on other communications infrastructure, such as a television tower in the capital of Kiev, by Russian invaders, according to Alp Toker. , who runs Internet monitoring. signature NetBlocks.

But certain areas have experienced disruption, Toker said.

“The most severe outages are seen in the east, Melitopol, Mariupol, Kharkiv and beyond the Luhansk and Donetsk regions into the Ukrainian-controlled and Severodonetsk regions,” Toker said by email. “Kyiv has fared better, as has the west of the country.”

Toker added that in NetBlocks’ view, Starlink “will not bring Ukraine back online in the event of a nationwide blackout,” but the service can provide access points for crucial services, such as supporting journalists, resistance groups and 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 technology in war zones, where coming across an unknown team can single out journalists or activists for closer scrutiny. There is also the specific risk of being tracked and triangulated through [radiofrequency] emissions when it comes to telecommunications equipment.

Those risks, Toker said, “must be weighed 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 in an attempt to raise awareness of the potential 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 getting involved in the Ukraine issue. This couldn’t be a more powerful sign of global solidarity,” Scott-Railton told CNN Business. “But we have to be aware of the risks. People in conflict zones are limited by time and resources. And we want to make sure that they are not given a false impression of the security of the technology that we provide them.”

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

A US military spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on the matter. The US military has long been aware of the risks of using satellite technology in war zones. In 2003, during the Iraq war, for example, both sides banned satellite phones due to security and intelligence risks.

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment about 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 again, been an underestimated risk. In 1996, for example, the Russians allegedly used the signals emitted from a satellite phone to attack and kill Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev. Russia has “decades of experience” in carrying out such attacks, he said on Twitter. Scott-Railton has also investigated the role that satellite technologies played in libyan revolution from 2011.

It’s not always clear when an adversary has become aware of 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: “Simply put, SpaceX’s Starlink terminal deployment in Ukraine could raise serious concerns for Ukrainian officials. who use them… Russia could use this geolocation information for anything. ranging from intelligence gathering and tracking to airstrikes.”

Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, made it clear that Russia is aware of Musk’s donation, and Rogozin sees it as a hostile act. In comments on Wednesday that were translated by CNN Business, Rogozin called SpaceX’s claims that Starlink is for civilian use and intended to connect the world “fairy tales.”

“Muskophiles say this is amazing, it’s the light of our global cosmic exploration,” Rogozin said. “Well, [Musk] has taken sides. I have no problems with it. It is obvious, it is the West, which we should never trust because it has always experienced chronic jealousy, among the political elites, jealousy towards our country. Look at how right now they’re competing with each other to poop on our relationships, and who’s going to clean up the mess afterwards? What is happening right now is very dangerous.”

Musk responded in a tweet.

“Ukrainian civilian internet was experiencing weird outages, maybe bad weather? – So SpaceX is helping to fix it,” she said. wrote.