How cell phones are changing the war in Ukraine

The use of mobile phones in the Russian attack on Ukraine is changing the nature of modern warfare and presenting new challenges to forces that could resonate in future conflicts.

Russian forces are reported to be targeting their Ukrainian opponents using advanced electronic warfare systems. In turn, the Ukrainians intercept unencrypted communications between Russian soldiers. Both sides use mobile phone cameras to show aspects of the war.

“Neither side that uses an unsecured mobile phone is at great risk,” retired US Army Major John Spencer, head of urban warfare studies at the Madison Policy Forum, told Digital Trends in an interview. “Signals from these phones can be picked up, geolocation, and then targeted with artillery or shelling.”

mobile goals

A Ukrainian IT worker sits at his laptop in a basement while the Russians continue to attack Ukraine.

One of the interesting targets of Ukrainian intelligence was simple conversations between Russian soldiers in the field. Instead of resorting to encrypted communications as with most Western militaries, the Russians surprisingly continue to use regular business phones.

Unfortunately for Russian soldiers, not many of their military-grade radios have been upgraded, Adam Fish, CEO of the data platform Ditto, said in an interview. As a result, the Russians rely on mobile devices and commercial networks to exchange tactical information to coordinate fire support maneuvers.

Spencer said Ukrainian forces were able to listen in on communications, target senior commanders with aerial bombardments, and intercept valuable messages about troop orders, movements, and morale issues.

“The Ukrainian military is aware of the risks and has put in place cautionary instructions not to use unsecured communications,” Spencer added.

Brigadier General. General Robert Spalding, a senior commander in the US Air Force, said in an interview with Digital Trends that cell phones are more suitable for soldiers than clumsy military radios, but they are unsafe. Military equipment is safe and optimized, but systems are often not interoperable.

“For example, I know of one country where the Army and Navy have different systems of tactical communication,” Spalding added. “This means that they cannot communicate. So, it is not surprising that the Russians chose to use cell phones. However, doing so leaves them vulnerable in the field.”

The problem is that regular cell phones were not designed to hide users.

The problem is that regular cell phones were not designed to hide users. All phones leave a digital footprint that is easily accessible through software development kit (SDK) data, Spalding said. This data provides a geographic location that can allow user identification when paired with other pieces of information.

“For example, let’s say you know there’s a unit running at a particular location, you can buy data for that location,” Spalding added. Then you can watch what the devices are doing there and where they go. By observing where the device is going, you can determine who it belongs to.”

Spalding noted that another way opposing forces can identify users is by hacking into the cellular network itself. This can allow them not only to determine location data, but also to listen to calls. Some police departments and militaries use what’s called a stingray, a method that allows you to hijack the cellular signal and get the same data as if you had hacked the cellular network. “Stingrays work by tricking the phone into thinking it’s the network,” Spalding added.

Tim Redfearn, IT expert at ADS, Inc. , a military equipment supplier, told Digital Trends in an interview that stingrays, also called cellular location simulators, can pick up the signals of nearby cell phones. Simulators can locate users by tricking mobile phones into connecting to multiple masts in the area. “This helps both sides locate enemy forces, and often results in artillery bombardments or air strikes,” he added.

open source intelligence

Streets of Ukraine with a prominent monument in the foreground.
Anastasia Vlasova / Getty Images

Ukrainians also turn to ordinary mobile phone users for intelligence on where to find their enemies. Spencer said civilians used their mobile phones to upload videos and photos of the invading Russian forces.

“This allows the Ukrainian military and open source intelligence to collect not only the whereabouts of the Russians, but also very specific information about the unit and the type of equipment,” Spencer added.

Cell phones themselves have become targets. According to reports, Russian soldiers on the outskirts of Kyiv displaced residents from their apartments, locked them in cellars, and confiscated many of their cell phones and laptops under threat of execution.

Unlike many previous wars, Ukraine has probably more cell phones than people.

Spencer noted that unlike many previous wars, Ukraine likely has more cell phones than people. The increase in mobile phones means more sensors to capture Russian movements.

“As this trend continues, it’s almost as if a war is happening in some arena and we are all witness to the action, every detail, every gunfight, every death,” Spencer added. “It changes the way we motivate soldiers to fight and how political will is mobilized, contested and lost.”

Both sides of the Ukraine conflict use mobile phones as a propaganda tool. The Ukrainian government has set up a hotline for Russian families to call for any information about their captured relatives. The speed provided by mobile communications means that the walls between a combat soldier and home — and vice versa — have disappeared on today’s battlefields, Spencer said.

“The first thing that was often handed over to captured Russian soldiers by the Ukrainians was a mobile phone so they could call their homeland,” Spencer said. “This is very different. It affects their will to fight and families’ will to support the war.”

Changing the nature of war

The outcome of the conflict in Ukraine may ultimately depend on which side wins the information war, which will be waged largely via mobile phones. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has won billions of dollars in aid for his country by skillfully using appeals to appear on television and the Internet. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been relatively silent in presenting his rationale for the battle.

“In the West,” said Spalding, “the object of war was to use force to achieve a political outcome.” “What authoritarian regimes have discovered is that political warfare can go global using the same tools that technology companies use to make you a better consumer.”

Editors’ Recommendations