Jul 13 2022

The weaponizing of smartphone location data on the battlefield

Category: Smart PhoneDISC @ 8:40 am

How smartphone location data is obtained

For a country at war, monitoring the cellular networks in the conflict zone provides the most comprehensive view of mobile device activity. But before the conflict even begins, the nation can identify phones of interest, including the devices belonging to soldiers.

Because mobile app location data is often sold to commercial data brokers and then repackaged and sold to individual customers, a country can access such a database and then pick out the phones likely belonging to soldiers. Such devices will ping regularly in the locations of known bases or other military facilities. It’s even possible to identify the owner of a device by tracking the phone to its home address and then referencing publicly available information.

A country can also use information obtained from one or more data breaches to inform their devices of interest. The T-Mobile breach in 2021 demonstrated how much customer data is in the hands of a mobile operator, including a phone’s unique identifier (IMEI) and its SIM card’s identifier (IMSI).

Spies can also physically monitor known military sites and use devices known as IMSI catchers – essentially fake cell towers – to collect phone data from the phones in the vicinity. The Kremlin reportedly did this in the UK, with GRU officers gathering near some of the UK’s most sensitive military sites.

When a phone of interest appears on the monitored mobile network, the country can keep a close eye on the device’s location and other cellular data. The presence of two or more such devices in close proximity indicates that a mission may be taking place.

In addition to monitoring cell networks, a nation at war can utilize IMSI catchers on the battlefield to gather phone data for the purposes of locating and identifying devices. Location can be determined by triangulating signal strengths from nearby cell towers or by pinging a targeted device’s GPS system. Russia’s Leer-3 electronic warfare system, which consists of two drones containing IMSI catchers along with a command truck, can locate up to 2,000 phones within a 3.7-mile range.

To counter these location-finding drones, an opposing nation may jam a drone’s GPS signal, using a radio emitter to block the drone from receiving GPS signals. The country can also try GPS spoofing, employing a radio transmitter to corrupt the accuracy of the drone’s reported location. To counter such spoofing, systems for validating GPS signals have been deployed on the battlefield. In the larger picture, the corruptibility of GPS data has forced some nations to build their own geopositioning systems. For the US, M-Code serves as a military-only GPS signal that is both more accurate and provides anti-jamming and anti-spoofing capabilities.

Spyware is a more targeted approach to obtaining location data. It can be delivered over the cell network (via a malicious carrier update) or through an IMSI catcher. It’s also not uncommon for operators to pose as single women on social media sites to lure soldiers into downloading a malicious app. Hamas has reportedly used this tactic many times against Israeli soldiers. Such spyware can capture a device’s real-time location, among other capabilities.

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Tags: FTC, location data, smartphone location data