Ukrainian soldiers have described the dangers of using a mobile phone at the frontline in the conflict with Russian backed-separatists in recent years. “When you hear a drone, you have about five seconds to leave your position and run. The rocket will fly in that fast.”
New evidence suggests that mobile networks are now being weaponised as an instrument of war in the current conflict, as each side tracks soldiers’ phones. This electronic warfare involves drones and trucks being used to pick up signals from phones. By analyzing the strength of the signals, it is possible to estimate where a phone likely is and target that location with artillery fire.
The Russians are using the Leer-3 electronic warfare system to locate Ukrainians. Leer-3 comprises two drones and a command truck – as a means to locate Ukrainian forces. This system can pick up more than 2,000 phones within a 3.7-mile range, potentially enabling a whole host of enemy positions to be found.
Ukraine is expected to be using a similar system. The New York Times reports that at least one Russian general has been killed using mobile phone tracing. The tactic may also explain why Ukraine’s telecoms infrastructure has largely not been targeted since it enables Russians to gather intelligence from calls.
And while countermeasures can be taken to guard against eavesdropping, it’s not as simple as just turning your phone off. John Scott Railton, a senior researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, said by accessing a phone’s underlying operating system, an enemy could hack it to appear off when in fact it was on – making it a glowing beacon on the battlefield.
Taking the battery out of the phone is one solution, but this is often difficult to do with modern smartphones. A solution to this is the use of a faraday bag which cuts signals to and from the device, especially for devices where batteries cannot be taken out.