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

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CNN business

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk sent a shipment of Starlink antennas to Ukraine this week, which can be used to connect to the company’s satellite Internet service, responding to an appeal by the country’s deputy prime minister amid fears that Ukrainians could lose Internet access if Russia keep on its attacks on communications infrastructure.

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

“If an adversary has a specialized aircraft in the air, they can detect it [a satellite] signal and head for it,” Nicholas Weaver, a security researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, said via email. in answering Starlink may work for now, but anyone setting up a [Starlink] flat in Ukraine must consider it as a potential giant target”.

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

Shortly after this story originally went live, Musk also chimed in Chirpingsaying: “Important warning: Starlink is the only non-Russian communication system still functioning in parts of Ukraine, so the probability of being targeted is high. Please use with caution.

He continued on to warn users in Ukraine to “turn on Starlink only when necessary and place the antenna as far away from people as possible”, and to “place light camouflage over the antenna to avoid visual detection”.

It is unclear how many Starlink terminals SpaceX has sent to Ukraine, nor is it clear how the Ukrainian government intends to use or distribute them.

SpaceX’s foray into helping Ukraine began when the country’s deputy prime minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, issued a public appeal to Musk on Twitter this past weekend, saying, “as you try to colonize mars, russia tries to occupy ukraine! as your rockets successfully land from space, russian rockets attack ukrainian civilians! we ask you to provide ukraine Starlink stations and to call on sane Russians to resist”. It was one in a series of Fedorov tweets directed to various US-based technology figureheadsimploring them to act on behalf of Ukraine.

Musk has responded with offers of help, announced that the Starlink network has now been activated in Ukraine and, this week, a truckload of user terminals, needed for users to access 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.

Fedorov later acknowledged seeing the warning Musk posted on Twitter about the security issues, write to answer: “Of course … We will use them for the Ukrainians even after our victory.”

Most of the country still has access to regular terrestrial Internet connections, despite attacks on other communications infrastructure, such as a TV tower in the capital city of Kiev, by Russian invaders, according to Alp Toker, who heads Internet monitoring firm NetBlocks .

But some areas have experienced disruptions, Toker said.

“The heaviest disruptions are seen in the east, Melitopol, Mariupol, Kharkiv and beyond Luhansk and Donetsk regions to Ukrainian-controlled regions and Severodonetsk,” Toker said by email. “Kyiv fared better, as well as the west of the country”.

Toker added that, according to NetBlocks, Starlink “won’t 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 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 unknown equipment can single journalists or activists for closer scrutiny. There is also the specific risk of being tracked and triangulated away [radiofrequency] emissions when it comes to telecommunications equipment”.

Such risks, Toker said, “need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.”

John Scott-Railton, a senior research scientist 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 effort to raise awareness about the possible risks. He praised SpaceX’s range, but cautioned that Starlink terminals can transform into the equivalent of painting a giant target on their backs.

“It’s great to see the tech sector engage with the topic of Ukraine. This couldn’t be a more powerful signal of global solidarity,” Scott-Railton told CNN Business. “But we need to be aware of the risks. People in conflict zones are limited by time and resources. And we want to make sure they don’t get a false impression of the security of the technology we are providing them.”

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

A US military spokesman 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 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 did it respond to reporters’ routine email questions for years. Ukrainian officials and the country’s military did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Scott-Railton stressed that the use of satellite technology in conflict zones has repeatedly been an underestimated risk. In 1996, for example, the Russians allegedly used the signals emitted by a satellite phone to target and kill Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev. Russia has “decades of experience” carrying out such attacks, he said on Twitter. Scott-Railton has also studied the role satellite technologies play in the Libyan revolution of 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 cybersecurity startup, added in an email: “In conclusion, the deployment of SpaceX’s Starlink terminal in Ukraine could pose serious concerns to Ukrainian officials who use them. .. Russia could use this geolocation information for everything from intelligence gathering and tracking to airstrikes.”

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

“Muscophiles say it’s amazing, it’s the light of our world cosmic exploration,” Rogozin said. “Good, [Musk] took a stand. I have no problems with him. It is obvious, it is the West, which we should never trust because it has always experienced chronic jealousy, among the political elites, towards our country. See how right now they’re vying with each other to shit on our relationships, and who’s going to clean up all the mess later? What is happening right now is very dangerous.”

Musk replied in a tweet.

“Ukrainian civilian internet was experiencing strange interruptions – bad weather maybe? – so SpaceX is helping fix that,” he ha he wrote.