SpaceX sent Starlink Internet terminals to Ukraine. Consumers need to be careful, security experts say

But the use of satellite services can be dangerous in war, as evidenced by the history of countries using satellite signals to geolocate and target enemies, cybersecurity experts told CNN Business.

“If the enemy has a specialized aircraft in the air, he can detect [a satellite] signal and get involved in it, “said Nicholas Weaver, a security researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, by e-mail. Starlink may work right now, but anyone who asks a [Starlink] plate in Ukraine should see it as a potential giant target. “

In short: “It may be useful, but for safety reasons you don’t want to put 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 first published, Musk also got involved Twittersaying “Important note: Starlink is the only non-Russian communication system still operating in some parts of Ukraine, so you are likely to be targeted. Please use with caution. ”He continued to I advise consumers in Ukraine to “turn on Starlink only when necessary and place the antenna as far away from people as possible”, and to “put light camouflage on the antenna to avoid visual detection.”

It is not clear how many Starlink terminals have sent SpaceX to Ukraine, nor is it clear how the Ukrainian government plans to use or distribute them.

SpaceX’s raid to help Ukraine began when the country’s Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Fedorov made a public request to Musk on Twitter last weekend, saying: “While you are trying to colonize Mars, Russia is trying to occupy Ukraine!” While your missiles successfully land from space – Russian missiles attack civilians of Ukraine! Please provide Ukraine with Starlink stations and ask sensible Russians to stay. “This was one of a series of tweets that Fedorov directed at various US-based technical figures, begging them to take action on behalf of Ukraine.

Musk responded with offers of help, announcing that the Starlink network has already been activated in Ukraine, and this week a whole truckload of consumer terminals arrived, which are needed to provide users with access to satellite Internet service.

Fedorov shared a photo online.

And on Wednesday, he shared a photo of what appears to be an active Starlink antenna at work.

Most of the country still has access to its normal, Earth-based Internet connections, despite attacks on other communications infrastructure, such as a TV tower in Kyiv’s capital, by Russian invaders, according to Alp Toker, who heads Internet monitoring company NetBlocks. .

But some areas have had interruptions, Toker said.

“The worst disturbances are observed in the east, Melitopol, Mariupol, Kharkiv and along the Luhansk and Donetsk districts to the regions controlled by Ukraine and Severodonetsk,” Toker said by email. “Kyiv did better, as did the western part of the country.”

Ukraine wants Russia to be cut off from the global Internet.  Experts say this is a risky idea

Tocker added that according to NetBlocks Starlink “will not return Ukraine online in the event of an eclipse nationwide” – but the service can provide hotspots for important services such as support for journalists, resistance groups and public officials “with enough luck to have access to the equipment “.

But Toker also acknowledged that using the service could be dangerous: “There is always a risk associated with new technologies in war zones where detection with unfamiliar equipment can highlight journalists or activists for closer scrutiny. There is also a specific risk of tracking and triangulation through [radiofrequency] emissions when it comes to telecommunications equipment. “

These risks, Tocker said, “must be weighed on a case-by-case basis.”

John Scott-Reylton, a senior fellow at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab who has spent a decade studying hacking and surveillance in conflict zones, turned to Twitter over the weekend in an attempt to raise awareness of the potential risks. He praised the scope of SpaceX, but warned that Starlink terminals could become the equivalent of drawing a giant target on its back.

“It’s great to see how the technology sector is committed to Ukraine. “This could not be a stronger signal of global solidarity,” Scott Reilton told CNN Business. “But we have to keep the risks in mind. People in conflict zones are limited in time and resources. And we want to make sure that they don’t get a false impression of the safety of the technology we provide them. “

The risks have nothing to do with whether communications are encrypted, Scott-Railton added, as devices don’t have to be eavesdropped on by the enemy – they just have to emit enough unique signals to be tracked and eventually localized. He also noted that Starlink is still a very new technology, so it is not required has been tested in military zones to identify and assess risks.

A U.S. military spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. The US military is aware of the risks of using satellite technology in military areas. In 2003, during the Iraq war, for example, both countries banned satellite phones due to security and intelligence risks.

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment on Starlink, nor did it respond to routine email inquiries from reporters for years. Ukrainian officials and the country’s military did not respond immediately to requests for comment.

Scott-Reylton pointed out that the use of satellite technology in conflict zones was – again and again – an underestimated risk. In 1996, the Russians reportedly used satellite signals to direct and assassinate Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev. Russia has “decades of experience” in carrying out such attacks, he said on Twitter. Scott-Reylton is also exploring the role that satellite technology plays in Libyan revolution since 2011

It is not always clear when the enemy has caught the use of enemy satellite technology, Scott-Reylton added, until it is too late.

Josh Lospinoso, CEO of Shift5, a US-based computer security company, added in an email: “Ultimately, the deployment of a SpaceX Starlink terminal in Ukraine could raise serious concerns for Ukrainian employees who use them … Russia may use this geolocation information for everything from intelligence gathering and tracking to air strikes. ”

Dmitry Rogozin, head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, has indicated that Russia is aware of Musk’s donation – and Rogozin sees it as a hostile act. In comments to CNN Business on Wednesday, Rogozin said SpaceX’s claims that Starlink was for civilian use and aimed at connecting the world were “fairy tales.”

“Muscophiles say it’s amazing, it’s the light of our world space exploration,” Rogozin said. “Okay, [Musk] took a side. I have no problems with it. It is obvious that this is the West, which we should never trust, because it has always felt chronic jealousy among political elites, jealousy of our country. See how right now they are competing with each other to empty our relationship, and who will clear up the whole mess later? What is happening right now is very dangerous. “

Musk tweeted.

“The civil Internet in Ukraine was experiencing strange interruptions – maybe bad weather. “So SpaceX is helping to fix it,” he said wrote.