During the Second World War, mail to and from U.S. service members and even those supporting the war effort was highly censored to ensure that secret information wasn’t passed on to the enemy. Today, mobile apps are proving to be a much easier to identify the movements of military personnel in Ukraine – as Russian soldiers are increasingly being targeted via unencrypted mobile phones.
More recently, one Russian soldier was even singled out after he reportedly pilfered a pair of Apple AirPods from a Ukrainian home last year. Those wireless headphones were then tracked via Apple’s “Find My” feature and it was later determined the AirPods were taken outside of Kyiv. The open-source intelligence firm Molfar tracked the device’s movements – showing how a Russian soldier had apparently been engaged in the fighting outside of the Ukrainian capital in March 2022 before eventually withdrawing in April.
The individual was tracked by Molfar to the Belgorod region some 600 miles away, where Russian forces had amassed in another ground assault, and he was later tracked a further 600 miles to the town of Gelendzhik, where he finally made a 57-hour drive east to the town of Kemerovo in Siberia.
Ties to War Crimes?
Using publicly available data, the Russian soldier was identified as Roman Nureyev Evgenievich, who had served with the 27th detachment of the Kuzbass Joint Force, which had been deployed in the fighting near Kyiv, while his detachment was actively involved in the brutal Bucha invasion.
“Roman Nureyev is the head of the family,” the Molfar investigators wrote. “In addition to going to war against a sovereign state for money, he committed a war crime, robbing a civilian house. He then brought the loot back to his home to show off to his family and enjoy the status of ‘hero of Russia’ and ‘war hero.'”
While Evgenievich’s actions last spring aren’t entirely known, it has been widely reported that Russian forces engaged in a horrific assortment of war crimes – including the unlawful appropriation of personal property. Evgenievich has only been linked to the wireless earbuds, but there could be a case made that if he is accused of even worse crimes, his taking those wireless devices would be a “smoking gun” that puts him at the scene of any possible alleged crimes.
Tracking the Enemy
Beyond the possible war crimes, this is noteworthy in that it highlights how the AirPods have allowed an individual Russian soldier’s movements to be so easily tracked. Such information could also help Ukrainian forces identify the units the Russian soldier belonged to and the Kremlin’s troop movements.
“Any device that used data location could be vulnerable,” warned Roger Kay, principal analyst of Endpoint Technology Associates.
“If you have location services running, it would be possible to find a device within practically a meter,” Kay told ClearanceJobs.
However, Kay has noted that there are claims online that the Find My feature might not provide quite the level of tracking Molfar described. Critics online have also put into question the accuracy of the claims that the soldier was tracked with the AirPods alone.
It is true however that some devices – notably mobile phones – have been used by Ukrainian Special Forces to determine the location of enemy personnel.
“What you are seeing is essentially the result of ignorance and carelessness on the part of the soldiers,” Kay continued. “This is an example of soldiers not being particularly well-trained to deal with the dangers of using their mobile phones and other devices. Even those told not to do so, probably just get bored and homesick and they make a mistake and call home.”
That can have deadly consequences.
And these are hardly isolated events, as Ukrainian forces have also been targeting Russian positions via soldiers’ mobile phones. There have even been reports of high-ranking Russian officers who were killed in the early stages of the fighting because they opted to use their personal devices to call in orders.
“Much of the problem with the Russian soldiers is that they are conscripts and thus are looting and bringing personal electronics,” said technology industry analyst Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group.
In the case of some of the officers, they reported using phones because of trouble with radios – and didn’t expect that they could be so easily targeted. In other cases, consumer apps have compromised seemingly secure devices.
“I would expect a professional force to leave their personal communications devices, which aren’t hardened, back at the base,” Enderle told ClearanceJobs. “Typically mil-spec devices are locked to prevent them from being compromised by malware, but yes putting a consumer-grade app on a mil-spec device would likely compromise its security and make it less reliable so that should be avoided.”
Dangers of TikTok
Though not the same situation, this could serve as a reminder of why the U.S. military has banned the use of TikTok on even personal devices that are used on government facilities. Location tracking still remains a key concern, even if some experts suggest the threat is overblown.
“I’ve seen the warnings in the political circles about Chinese technology from firms such as TikTok and Huawei – but I’ve never seen anyone make a good forensic case for it,” explained Kay.
“It isn’t clear that the TikTok app can ‘phone home’ to China,” Kay added. “But we know other devices have done so.”
Yet, it may be clear that following the purported tracking of the movements of a pair of AirPods and the way that Russian soldiers are targeted from unsecured phone calls, it remains best not to bring such devices near a battlefield or other sensitive areas.