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Russian Signals Capacity: A Primer

By Matthew Parish

Over the weekend the government of Russia released an audio recording of a discussion between two Germany military officials discussing NATO operations on the ground, actual and planned, in Russian / Ukrainian theatre. The audio tape in question has been confirmed as genuine by the German authorities, and it discusses topics as sensitive as the fact that the British Armed Forces already have soldiers on the ground in covert positions in eastern Ukraine; and that the German Armed Forces are making plans to invade Russia. None of the things discussed should surprise us; we have been speculating on these pages in the Lviv Herald for weeks that individual NATO member states were making plans to reinforce the Ukrainian Armed Forces in military theatre including along the front line. The fact that covert forces are already in places along the Ukrainian front line is hardly a shocking revelation; it would be grossly negligent if those forces were not located in front line positions in readiness for whatever military operations might be necessary in the immediate future to protect the sovereignty of Ukraine, in particular in light of certain albeit minor apparent successes on the battlefield recently.

Moreover the development of plans to invade Russia, as we have argued here, are also entirely rational on the part of NATO member states because the only long-term approach to resisting aggressive expansionist Russian imperialism is to enter Russian territory and carve the country up into a series of independent states representing her ethno-territorial variety. Only in this way can the demand on the part of Moscow for relentless war and the tyranny associated with control from the centre as the entirety of the economy and political resources of the world’s largest country is perennially diverted towards warlike activities. This would presumably require NATO troops to enter Russia at some stage, to achieve political stabilisation as the Russian Federation is divided into a series of constituent member states. Individual former Russian satellites might find themselves joining NATO or part of an accession process to do so, just as have former Soviet states such as Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and (in the negotiation / accession phase) Georgia.

Moreover invasion of Russian territory might be necessary as a pre-emptive measure in the context of European theatre should Russians achieve further more substantial territorial gains, as a means of drawing off Russian Armed Forces from invasion strategies and requiring them to reassign forces to resist the conquest of their own territory. Should Russia invade her neighbour, she cannot be surprised if her neighbour’s allies make plans to invade her as part of a retaliatory strategy. This is military common sense and therefore nothing in the captured German tapes is either confidential, scandalous or surprising, although the Russian government is seeking to achieve a propaganda victory from the very fact that it achieved this Signals interception and to embarrass the German government to the maximum extent.

The question therefore arises: how did the Russian government achieve this? I have been the target of Russian government Signals interception and electronic communications interference and therefore I can explain how the Russians in all likelihood achieved what they did. It is possible for governments to instal on mobile telephones unknown tracking software that bypasses virtually all modern security protocols and is able to track and transmit the following information, whenever there is a mobile telephone signal or WiFi or internet connection: location; contents of messages (whether sent by encrypted means or otherwise); voice calls; anything that can be recorded by an audio microphone on a telephone; or anything that can be captured by the telephone’s camera or video camera. The ways this sort of malware is installed on a person’s mobile phone by a foreign government is a complex subject but suffice it to say that the victim is unlikely ever to know that the malware has been installed and it cannot be detected by usual anti-virus software.

The fact that such software exists is an open secret in the global intelligence communities, particularly since a private Israeli company started selling a version of it typically under the name of “Pegasus”. Unfortunately what governments invent sooner or later gets into the hands of malicious private sector brokers and then it can be bought or sold for malign purposes. This is an inevitable fact of technological development; even Pakistani nuclear bomb technologies were at one point on the market in the scandal relating to A.Q. Khan.

What these mobile telephony Spyware variants entail is that if you are targeted (and all the Russian government needs is your mobile number to instal their own variety of spyware on your device) then anything you say in the vicinity of your mobile telephone is subject to interception and transmission to the Russian government. It does not matter whether your mobile phone is turned off or whether it is “out of coverage”; the software enables the phone to turn itself on, giving itself the impression that the ‘phone is still off; and it also enables the ‘phone to store audio recordings on the device’s memory while the telephone is out of coverage and then transmit the recording once the device is back in coverage. Presumably this is what happened to the German military officials in question: one of their telephones had been targeted by Russian spyware and was simply transmitting all audio conversations within range of the telephone. These military officials may have imagined that they were having a private conversation but in fact the mobile telephone of at least one of them was serving as an unknown spy for the Russian government.

There are many other unsavoury things that can be done with mobile telephones by the Russian government, such as rewriting text, intercepting emails and all sorts of other video nasties but elementary audio recording and location tracking are amongst the most common.

What can we do to prevent this? Well, aside from not being important enough for the Russian government to want to bother monitoring you, it is very difficult to avoid this thing except by keeping your mobile telephone number a state secret. And that in itself is extremely difficult, because even if you try it then you are likely to have contacts whose one phone numbers are not state secrets. Their address books can then be hacked by equivalent software and your number can be found. There are services like RocketReach that compile records of people’s phone numbers globally from more or less public or private sources. The same is true of email addresses.

Another solution is not to have a mobile telephone at all although these days virtually nobody seems able to maintain this aside from a handful of world leaders such as the US President or the UN Secretary General. (Even Barack Obama is reputed to have had a mobile telephone, which his aides were apparently most unhappy about. It is not known whether Joe Biden has one.)

A third is to be aware of the risks if you are a person in a sensitive category and do not have private secret or confidential conversations in the vicinity of or using your mobile phone. This is perhaps the most important rule: be aware of what the technology can do and take steps to mitigate the intrusion on your privacy. Carry a Faraday bag (that should be soundproof and prohibits all electromagnetic radiation from getting in or out) and place your and others’ mobile telephones in it when you want to have that all-important conversation. Or, in extremis, have sensitive meetings in electronics free environments. Put your mobile phone in a lead safe or steel box if necessary, and ensure others do the same.

Above all, the lesson is this: do not underestimate the capacity of the Russian state IT architecture to listen in and surveil and to interfere with electronic communications - if they want to. In all likelihood you are not in an at-risk category; do not be overly paranoid as a result of reading this article. But if you are a senior member of a military infrastructure opposed to Russian interests, for example, then be aware that you may well be a target and adjust your behaviour accordingly.


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