SpaceX’s satellite internet network, Starlink, presents risks for those using the system in Ukraine during the war against Russia, cybersecurity experts told Insider.
Elon Musk sent Starlink kits to Ukraine after Mykhailo Fedorov,the country’s vice prime minister,requested help from the billionaire on February 26. Since then, three more batches of terminals have been sent.
Since SpaceX sent Starlink equipment to Ukraine, safety concerns have been raised for users in the country because of the threat of Russian troops even Musk has warned Starlink users in Ukraine to use the system with caution.
“There are some features of Starlink that make it different from previous generations of satellite communications technology used in conflicts,” John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School, told Insider.
Here’s why Starlink could endanger its users in Ukraine, according to experts:
Starlink terminals are ‘visually distinctive’
Musk has advised users to cover the Starlink terminal the dish which connects to the satellites with “light camouflage” to avoid being detected. He also told users to place the antenna as far away from people as possible and to turn the system on “only when needed.”
Experts say that this advice isn’t enough to protect users.
Scott-Railton said the biggest concern is that Starlink terminals are “visually distinctive,” and that Russian troops could consider their users as targets.
Nicholas Weaver, a lecturer in computer science at UC Berkeley, told Insider that Starlink terminals can’t be camouflaged because they need to have an obstructed view of the sky to connect to satellites.
“Elon Musk is, at heart, a fast-talking, third-rate car salesman,” Weaver said. “He knows that a Starlink dish can’t be visually camouflaged due to its nature but somehow tweeted out that is what people in Ukraine should do.
Starlink is ‘high-profile’
Since launching in October 2020, Starlink’s user base has grown to more than 145,000 users in 25 countries recorded at the start of this year.
“In most situations, the higher the profile of the communications technology and the talk about it, the greater the risk is in using it in a conflict situation for obvious reasons,” Scott-Railton said.
Although Scott-Railton said he’s pleased that Musk is acknowledging the risks, he added that it’s critical for users to be aware of the risks and act carefully when using the technology.
Weaver said: “The rule should be if Russia doesn’t care, Starlink is fine. If Russia does care, a Starlink base station should be kept well away of anything you don’t want a Russian bomb to land on.”
Radio signals are trackable
Starlink, like any kind of communication technology, emits radio signals but they can be tracked down, Scott-Railton said.
Jason Healey, senior research scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), told Insider: “Any modern military can typically either triangulate those signals to target them with artillery or airstrikes or use a missile which hones in directly on such signals.”
Weaver explained how easy it could be for Russia to detect signals from Starlink dishes.
“If Russia cared and had a suitable electronic warfare plane in the air, they should be able to easily locate and identify the transmitter … the plane is able to literally point out where on the ground the Starlink dish lies,” he said.