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Space.com's SpaceX Starlink satellite internet terminals arrive in Ukraine, The Verge's Elon Musk’s promised Starlink terminals have reached Ukraine and Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine and Minister of Digital Transformation of Ukraine's tweet:

Starlink — here. Thanks, @elonmusk

explain that requested Starlink coverage and terminals have been made available in Ukraine during a period of highly active warfare involving nations and equipment of advanced war fighting technology. These might include satellite, aircraft (fighters, bombers, UAVs) and ground equipment.

Question: How to reduce/mitigate the degree to which a Starlink terminal user in a war zone is giving their position in real time?

For example, does simply turning the thing on immediately identify your location as a Starlink user by radio transmissions? Do you have to start using it for data before that happens? Can its radiated signals be readily picked up from any direction?

What might be measures that a Starlink ground station could use to reduce or mitigate some of these risks?

For example, can you use it in "burst mode" i.e. on for a few seconds every few minutes to make some kinds of tracking or homing more difficult? Put it in a hole in the ground lined with chicken wire to reduce low elevation radiation?

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    Basically any active electronics device gives away their position, easily detectable with modern scanners. This makes the question somewhat moot. Also, it might be a better fit with ham.stackexchange.com or electronics.stackexchange.com
    – Marcel
    Commented Mar 1, 2022 at 6:53
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    @uhoh You are basically asking two questions here. 1) Whether an active terminal gives away it's position, which is always yes, in more than one way, 2) How to mitigate against a scan for location from an adversary, which might depend on circumstances and capabilities.
    – Marcel
    Commented Mar 1, 2022 at 8:38
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    Not that I can answer anything, but I'm curious whether you care specifically about giving away your position to enemies with absolutely no access to Starlink, or also about giving away your position to Starlink. i.e. are you scared about Putin, Elon, or both? Because I think they are different questions. Commented Mar 2, 2022 at 16:53
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    @Blueriver From what I have learned about Starlink the setup process for a ground station includes registration as a user with a fixed position, and I think (but I'm not sure) that that includes a GPS fix from either a GPS chip in the Starlink ground station or perhaps the user's cell phone. Because of that I'd never considered that SpaceX didn't have accurate GPS information. So you make a good point; more traditional hacking of the Starlink user registration database might reveal the GPS location of every ground station in a war zone at the same time! If so, that would count as an answer!
    – uhoh
    Commented Mar 2, 2022 at 19:35
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    @uhoh I didn't know that about Starlink, thanks for enlightening me! It wouldn't count as an answer though, because there's nothing you can do to "reduce/mitigate" that risk. It is an attack vector, and an important comment I think, but nothing we can do about it :( Commented Mar 2, 2022 at 20:22

4 Answers 4

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Starlink terminals are different from your average satellite phone in one important regard: their antenna is directional. It is a phased array.

This has two important consequences:

  1. The total radio power emitted is less than it would be, should the transmitter be omnidirectional. It is like 2W - comparable to an old-fashioned 2G phone and few times less than Iridium and likes for a great deal more bandwidth.

I didn't find easilly available information about the existence of any kind of transmitter power control. It is quite possible (and in general a good engineering practice) that the transmitted power is reduced when the link conditions (satellite position and/or the weather) are favorable.

The (averaged) transmit power also depends on the upload data rate. It will be 20-50 times less if the connection is used to download information at the maximum rate (compared to the upload at the maximum rate) and much less when it is lightly used or idle.

  1. The emitted radio power is concentrated in a quite narrow beam pointing at some satellite. The beam width is like 1-2 degrees.

The same technology that makes it efficient also makes it much less detectable. If the detector is not in or near the beam, it will get orders of magnitude less radio power from the antenna, compared to the ordinary satellite phone. It may as well fail to detect it.

I don't know how much sensitive is the military equipment used for this purpose. Either way, the detection is much harder and much more error-prone.


Edit:

The above is completely true about Starlink terminal V1 (with the circle antenna) when used with wired (Ethernet) connection only and the WiFi disabled or, better yet, the router completely unplugged. V1 is perfectly usable without the bundled-in WiFi router. The white cable from the bundle can be connected to a third-party Ethernet-only router or directly to the computer's Ethernet port.

The V2 terminal (with the rectangular antenna) does not have Ethernet capabilities bundled in. It requires an "Ethernet adapter" that is ordered separately. The WiFi router acts as a power supply for the dish, so it cannot be completely and securely unplugged as in V1. I am not aware whether the WiFi can be reliably turned off in the V2 software when only the Ethernet port is used.

More comments about radio-securing V2 are welcome.


Edit2:

Various people on the Internet succeeded in making V2 completely "wired" by cutting the router-side proprietary connector off the cable, crimping an Ethernet RJ-45 plug instead (the cable looks like a beefed-up Ethernet with the usual color scheme) and using a third-party POE injectors with sufficient power rating (aim for 48V, 2A or maybe less with the snow melting function disabled).

I don't have V2 available to test, but the idea looks right.

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    This. I would expect a normal mobile phone or a wifi station to be as easy or easier to locate and track than a Starlink terminal.
    – jpa
    Commented Mar 2, 2022 at 18:35
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    Looks like it is orders of magnitude easier to detect a mobile phone (be it satellite or cellular) or a wifi device.
    – fraxinus
    Commented Mar 2, 2022 at 20:45
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    Spot on. However, please consider, that the newer v2 Starlink Terminal has (only) WiFi in it, to connect to local mobile devices, thus forfeiting the mentioned advantage. The ones delivered to the Ukraine, however, according to publicly available information, are v1, having an ethernet port, which is a good thing in this case. See spaceexplored.com/2021/11/11/…
    – Marcel
    Commented Mar 3, 2022 at 7:05
  • Ah. I'll fix the answer.
    – fraxinus
    Commented Mar 3, 2022 at 11:43
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    it would be great if there would be a possibility to come up with a detailed (easy to read/understand) how-to guide for the here mentioned solutions. I am asking as the people on the ground in Ukraine might not have the time/focus at the moment to translate the great tips from @fraxinus above into action. I am in contact with some Ukrainian engineer. To spread more awareness, you can share this link which mentions this answer (linkedin.com/posts/…) Thank you for your help. Commented Mar 4, 2022 at 13:39
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In another conflict, some people have allegedly been tracked and killed due their use of satellite phones or internet. One mitigation is to separate uplink location and site where the connection is actually used.

From an article "Satphones, Syria, and Surveillance" by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which reports on the above incident:

There are a few different ways by which satellite phones can be tracked. The first—and easiest for a government actor—would be to simply ask or pressure a company to hand over user data. This is not beyond the realm of possibility (readers might recall an incident in which Yahoo handed over information about a Chinese dissident to his government, resulting in a ten year prison term), but is just one of several methods.

Satellite phones can also be tracked by technical means and there is ample technology already on the market for doing so. For example, this portable Thuraya monitoring system by Polish company TS2, which also counts several US government agencies as clients; these systems for monitoring Thuraya and Iridium phones, created by Singaporean company Toplink Pacific; or this satellite phone tracking technology from UK based Delma MMS.

Authorities can find the position of a satellite phone using manual triangulation, but in order to track a phone in this manner, the individual would need to be relatively close by. Nowadays, however, most satellite phones utilize GPS, making them even easier to track using products widely available on the market such as those mentioned above. Some of these products allow not only for GPS tracking, but also for interception of voice and text communications and other information.

The article has been referenced on twitter on this thread: https://twitter.com/jsrailton/status/1498426984241713152

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    Although your link is helpful, link only answers are disliked here. I am going to heavily edit your answer to incorporate the most relevant information. Thus, you will get credit for you providing the source.
    – Marcel
    Commented Mar 1, 2022 at 10:09
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    I'm a bit dubious of the claim that GPS makes a system easier to track since GPS receivers receive but don't transmit. Commented Mar 2, 2022 at 11:24
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    @Damien_The_Unbeliever: The phone has a GPS receiver. By itself, a GPS receiver can't be tracked. The phone transmits its GPS coordinates in the telephone datastream. The coordinates can be pulled out of the data the telephone transmits. That's what the quote means.
    – JRE
    Commented Mar 2, 2022 at 14:28
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    "Some people have allegedly been tracked and killed due their use of satellite phones or internet." If I understand correctly, that was NOT in Ukraine during this invasion, right? In either case, it would be helpful to clarify that, like "In other conflicts some people..." Commented Mar 2, 2022 at 16:55
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    @Damien_The_Unbeliever for many of the use cases of satellite phones, transmitting the GPS location is a major feature. It's particularly important for assisting rescue operations in remote areas. I personally don't have a cell phone, in part because I don't like to be tracked all the time, but I do have a Garmin InReach specifically so I can be tracked whenever I want it. Commented Mar 3, 2022 at 10:31
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Apart from the Starlink uplink and satellite aerial, some relatively cheap components would let you use it at a distance. Safest would be a length of multimode fibre, and a transceiver at both ends. If they manage to locate and bomb the Starlink uplink, you are at a (relatively) safe distance and not transmitting any radio signal that might let them target your person. If 100m is a great enough distance then ordinary twisted pair Ethernet cable would carry the data ... but unscreened twisted pair does leak, slightly, and 100m is not what I would call relatively safe in a war zone with somebody trying to kill me.

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    It seems like 100 meters would be extremely helpful if it were a hand-held or drone-based rocket propelled grenade targeting the source of the radio emanations.
    – uhoh
    Commented Mar 1, 2022 at 20:36
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    100m seems to be the maximum passive ethernet supports by specification.
    – Marcel
    Commented Mar 3, 2022 at 7:08
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    @uhoh Nowadays optic fiber seems to be not hard to setup and distance can be much longer. Transceivers needed on both sides. Commented Mar 3, 2022 at 18:34
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    @akostadinov sure, for single mode DWDM you can go 100+ kilometers without even an optical amplifier but one can't easily find the transceivers and spools of fiber with connectors on both ends at the local 7-11. Multimode optical fiber is way easier to work with and the lower-tech hardware may be easier to locate in a war zone but modal dispersion severely limits the bandwidth-distance product.
    – uhoh
    Commented Mar 3, 2022 at 19:48
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    @uhoh, Typical transmission speed and distance limits are 100 Mbit/s for distances up to 2 km (100BASE-FX), 1 Gbit/s up to 1000 m, and 10 Gbit/s up to 550 m., sounds like good enough to me. Commented Mar 4, 2022 at 8:35
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For example, can you... put it in a hole in the ground lined with chicken wire to reduce low elevation radiation?

From Politico.com's UkraineX: How Elon Musk’s space satellites changed the war on the ground

Yes!

Here's a image of a Starlink ground station sitting down in a hole pointed to the sky but with no path for near-horizontal radiation. But for wet soil the chicken wire does not seem to be necessary.

A Starlink antenna casts a shadow on Ukrainian frontline positions near the town of Izyum in the southern Kharkiv region of Ukraine in May. | Anatolii Stepanov for POLITICO

A Starlink antenna casts a shadow on Ukrainian frontline positions near the town of Izyum in the southern Kharkiv region of Ukraine in May. | Anatolii Stepanov for POLITICO

Oleksiy, at right, on the frontline near the town of Izyum in the south of Ukraine’s Kharkiv region in May. | Anatolii Stepanov for POLITICO

Oleksiy, at right, on the frontline near the town of Izyum in the south of Ukraine’s Kharkiv region in May. | Anatolii Stepanov for POLITICO


This is covered to some extent in other answers, but considering the source I think it warrants a separate answer.

Tweeted by SpaceX's @ElonMusk:

Important warning: Starlink is the only non-Russian communications system still working in some parts of Ukraine, so probability of being targeted is high. Please use with caution.

and

Turn on Starlink only when needed and place antenna away as far away from people as possible

(emphasis added)

These are linked in CNN's SpaceX sent Starlink internet terminals to Ukraine. Users should be cautious, experts say which also says:

But using satellite services can be dangerous in wartime, as evidenced by a history of states using satellite signals to geolocate and target enemies, cybersecurity experts told CNN Business.

"If an adversary has a specialized plane aloft, it can detect [a satellite] signal and home in on it," Nicholas Weaver, a security researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, said via email. "It isn't necessarily easy, but the Russians have a lot of practice on tracking various signal emitters in Syria and responding. Starlink may work for the moment, but anyone setting a [Starlink] dish up in Ukraine needs to consider it as a potential giant target."

In short: "It may be useful, but for safety's sake you don't want to set it (or really any distinctive emitter) up in Ukraine anywhere close to where you would not want a Russian bomb dropping," Weaver said.

(emphasis added)

update: March 5 2022 Elon Musk tweet

SpaceX reprioritized to cyber defense & overcoming signal jamming.

Will cause slight delays in Starship & Starlink V2.

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