Recently, Ukrainian forces have taken advantage of Russian telephone signals to strike Occupied a temporary base in the city of Makiivka, killing dozens (or more – the death toll is highly disputed). The Russian Ministry of Defense later issued a rarity statment Attributing the unprecedented loss to the widespread, albeit unauthorized, use of personal phones. During operation, the phones cycled between the Ukrainian cellular network, allowing Ukrainian forces to triangulate accurate location information.
Russia is rumored to have the same thing Exploited Roaming beacons to track Ukrainians by equipping trucks and drones with cellular position simulators. Between 2014 and 2016, the Russian hacking group fancy bear (APT 28) allegedly followed the movements of Ukrainian artillery using an Android malware.
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The global adoption of smartphones, as well as social media, has revolutionized surveillance dynamics, particularly in theatre. Social media requires few moderators, which means that members of the armed forces can — and do — use smartphones to engage in online dialogue without supervision. More data—such as locations and information about habits, health, relationships, religious beliefs, and more—is being created and shared than ever before. Although militaries often instruct soldiers in the field not to use personal phones, the rules are regularly ignored.
Military leaders have historically exercised a high degree of control over the information flowing to and from the forces under their supervision. In the days before the digital age, soldiers who wrote letters to send by postal mail realized that their letters were subject to inspection by censors. Today, the sheer volume of digital information that service members can transmit either intentionally (eg through social media posts) or unintentionally (eg through the use of apps that send data to the cloud) makes it impossible as a practical matter for leaders The military to maintain complete control over the flow of information. Military leaders, in turn, have little understanding of the information their subordinates inadvertently make available to adversaries.
Today’s proliferation of smartphones has radically transformed the availability of intelligence. However, analyzing the huge volume of data available is quite challenging. So the asymmetry does not appear in access, but in discovery capabilities. For example, countries have diverse access to advanced artificial intelligence used to extract meaning from large amounts of data.
Unfortunately, securing smartphones against information leakage is difficult (because of the suite of signaling protocols, each with its own exploits), and impossible when smartphone owners post themselves on social media or pass on sensitive data to third parties (such as strava). Attempts to limit the use of personal phones among the troops – eg the threat Military imprisonment of Russian soldiers who violate smartphone use and social media policies – has not succeeded in preventing their use.
Military leaders have sometimes banned phones altogether: In 2020, US Army paratroopers are deployed to the Middle East. banned from carrying personal devices, in part due to the electronic abilities she has demonstrated RussiaAnd ChinaAnd Iran in the area. However, South Korea, which outright banned personal phones (and strictly enforced the rules), tempered Its policy in 2018 was caused by widespread demoralization and frustration.
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Militaries need to adapt to the realities of the age when the use of smartphones and social media by soldiers has become unavoidable. A proactive understanding of specific vulnerabilities associated with the ecosystem of data collected by apps running on soldiers’ smartphones can help identify apps that are particularly good (or bad) at protecting data that may be of interest to military adversaries.
Part of the solution also requires the rapid detection and localization of unauthorized transfers from within the friendly ranks while abroad, as well as the creation of technical frameworks to enforce security policies. Armies are already watching their troops – Israel was eavesdropping on its soldiers for more than a decade, and the UK claims it Champions Personal devices that violate the protocol—but the capabilities are neither comprehensive nor consistent.
But more importantly, it teaches soldiers that some forms of smartphone use, while seemingly innocuous and important to morale, reveal much more than might be expected. It is not enough to rely on it qualitative Instead, military leaders should make digital hygiene a key component of programs such as Advanced Individual Training, where soldiers must be taught the basics of signals intelligence, and how they can avoid the most obvious collection opportunities. This software can be used to build a culture of awareness throughout the military, including through the transmission of real life examples illustrating the potential consequences of unsafe smartphone use. The IDF’s approach to prioritizing digital technology, as well as appreciating its risks, could serve as a potential model.
Despite its troubling vulnerabilities, battlefield smartphones really work enormous tactical opportunities. A major challenge for modern militaries is maximizing the benefits of the extraordinary communications and computational capabilities of current and next-generation smartphones while adequately mitigating the extraordinary cyber and intelligence risks involved in their use.
Maya Villasenor is a computer science student at Columbia University and a former intern in the Digital Policy and Cyberspace Program.