May 22nd 2021RUKLA AND VILNIUSVIKTOR KOVALENKO, a Ukrainian conscript defending the eastern city of Debaltseve from pro-Russian forces, once emerged from a shelter and, despite standing instructions not to do it, switched on his phone to call his wife. Soon “shells started exploding around me,” he recalls. Similar attacks killed others in his battalion. The year was 2015, and the enemy was learning to direct artillery fire to transmitting mobiles. Since then, phone use on the front line has sharply fallen but still continues, concedes Captain Volodymyr Fitio of Ukraine’s army.Listen to this storyYour browser does not support the element.Enjoy more audio and podcasts on iOS or Android.Mobiles pose a dilemma for defence chiefs. A smartphone ban would hurt recruitment and morale. But a
The Economist: Europe considers the following as important:
This could be interesting, too:
The Economist: Europe writes Donald Tusk has taken over as leader of Poland’s main opposition party
The Economist: Europe writes Sweden is being shot up
The Economist: Europe writes Minority rights and minorities wronged
The Economist: Europe writes French restaurants are open but short-staffed
VIKTOR KOVALENKO, a Ukrainian conscript defending the eastern city of Debaltseve from pro-Russian forces, once emerged from a shelter and, despite standing instructions not to do it, switched on his phone to call his wife. Soon “shells started exploding around me,” he recalls. Similar attacks killed others in his battalion. The year was 2015, and the enemy was learning to direct artillery fire to transmitting mobiles. Since then, phone use on the front line has sharply fallen but still continues, concedes Captain Volodymyr Fitio of Ukraine’s army.
Mobiles pose a dilemma for defence chiefs. A smartphone ban would hurt recruitment and morale. But a single mobile can betray a big operation “like a fire in the dark”, says Lieutenant-Colonel Rouven Habel, a former commander of NATO’s troops in Lithuania.
Phones bring other dangers, too. With some technical know-how, “pinpoint propaganda” can be texted to mobiles. Such texts are “aimed at violating the psychological state” of soldiers, says Captain Fitio of those sent to Ukrainian soldiers. “Was an artillery barrage enjoyable?” one asked. Another needled, “Who is robbing your family while you are paid pennies waiting for your bullet?”
Among NATO troops, those near Russia receive the most of these “psyop” texts, says Commander Michael Widmann of the alliance’s Co-operative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital. Texts that falsely announce infidelity and injuries are also sent to soldiers’ loved ones back home. “It throws you off,” he says. Last month he led NATO’s Locked Shields 2021, the world’s biggest military cyber-exercise. It included the hacking of participants’ mobiles.
Another danger is portable eavesdropping devices that can be deployed on drones or hidden in cars. These IMSI-catchers, as they are called, since they nab international mobile-subscriber identities, trick nearby mobiles into exchanging data. A hostile agent parked near a defence ministry might capture data from officials’ mobiles, says Lt-Col Linas Idzelis, a Lithuanian expert in information operations.
Soldiers are also fooled into tapping links and playing videos that download spyware. Hackers posing as flirty women have used this trick to infect the smartphones of Israeli troops near Gaza. Kaspersky Lab, a Russian security firm, was hired by the Israel Defence Forces to solve the problem. It found more than 50 compromised mobiles among Israeli soldiers, says a researcher who worked on the project.
Spyware can lurk in apps. In some, malicious code has been implanted without the developer’s knowledge. CrowdStrike, an American firm, has spotted a handful of “trojanised” apps that may feed data to Russian military intelligence, says Adam Meyers, the firm’s top researcher for state hacking. Commander Widmann notes the “terrible consequences” of an app briefly used by Ukrainian artillery teams to improve aim. It secretly passed users’ locations to pro-Kremlin forces.
A ride-hailing app of Russian origin called Yandex.Taxi has drawn attention. Edvinas Kerza, Lithuania’s former deputy minister of defence, says Russian spies can use it to access microphone data. The American government has told its soldiers not to download the app. Yandex.Taxi dismisses the allegation.
Data can sometimes be stolen from smartphones without unwitting help from victims. Shadowy firms sell “zero click” code that allows this. To make matters worse, hacking is not always even needed. As a cyber-war officer on NATO’s Rukla base explains, telecom employees can be corrupted or blackmailed into providing access to subscribers’ phones.
An enemy that intercepts calls can “clone” voices with software that rearranges slivers of speech to fabricate phrases. It wouldn’t be hard, says Lt-Col Habel, to transmit seemingly authentic fake orders. NATO orders aren’t sent on mobiles, but the deceit might sow confusion. Sweden has told its citizens that, if the country is attacked, any order to cease resistance would be fake.
Phoney orders transmitted by pro-Russian forces have led to Ukrainian deaths, says Lt-Col Idzelis. Such trickery bodes ill for the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union, a militia formed to resist a feared Russian invasion. The militia communicates by phone, so drills include texts with bogus orders intended to lure riflemen into traps. To verify instructions, members question senders. NATO officials now tell troops to treat their mobiles as potentially compromised.
Smartphones have become a soft underbelly, says Sorin Ducaru, a former head of emerging threats at NATO. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which only escaped Soviet vassalage in 1991, are especially worried. Their governments have drafted strict rules on how mobiles can and cannot be used. Referring to lessons learned in Ukraine, Janis Mazeiks of Latvia’s foreign ministry describes these rules as “written in blood”. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline "Enemy armies with black mirrors"