The “Pirate” Cell Tower In Kiev – How Technology Helps (And Harms) Protest Movements

As you may have known, there was recently civil unrest in the Ukraine. President  Viktor Yanukovich’s decision to  align with Russia instead of with the European Union (many suspect President Putin had his fingers in this), got the ball rolling. Then when the public backlash started, the Ukrainian government responded by banning public protest.

If there was a great way to piss off the masses, that was the way to do it. What started as relativly peaceful, turned into a cival war, with civilians even managing to take over some government properties. Which brings me to the story.

Last Tuesday, all cell phone users in the vicinity of the Kiev protests received a text message that read “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass riot”. Three Ukrainian carriers (Kyivstar, MTS and Life) have denied any involvement, be it giving out subscriber information or location information. A claim that I am sure will be tested as time goes on.

As of yesterday I believe, the government has repelled the anti-protest laws, but I have no knowledge of the current state of affairs at the moment.

When it comes to the technologies of today, there is no doubt that it is a big help to movements such as this. Accessibility to SMS and  the Internet unites like minded people, and makes planning easier.

But the downside to all of this convenience, is privacy. We hear it all the time now a days after the Snowden revelations. But those concerns seem to be primarily surrounding ones Internet footprint (the typed traffic and mouse clicks you generate), as opposed to location data,  which is now more then ever, shared  (and leaked) by modern  technologies.

Just in utilizing a cellular network alone, we are making our location known. The technology itself is based on location (the network has to know where to route your traffic). Keep in mind, that this methodology of tracking was/is not really efficient, since it requires “triangulation”.



The bottom image is a better example of triangulation results, since the location can rarely be pinpointed right to the spot (not the 100% location accuracy of a land line for  911 purposes, but still close enough to be worrisome). However, most (if not all) phones now come equipped with GPS or AGPS (assisted GPS) traceability, often on by default. And to top that, many apps available on smartphones that we use in our daily life, require this  functionality.
Not even taking into the consideration the amount of “check in” apps that are tied into various social media  portals (making our locations not only visible to friends and family <<and the NSA/other “big brother entities”>>, but also the whole open internet, depending on your privacy settings).

My attitude toward these various “invasive” technologies, is what some would call, complacent. My attitude toward privacy in general in this day and age, could fall in the same category (as illustrated in this and this previous entry).
I have been telling the medium that is the internet (by default) many of my problems for my whole life. Ever since I started using it as a communication tool for keeping in touch (LONG before “privacy” was ever an issue on my mind). The internet was the scene where I was  cyber-bullied in high school (both on an open forum by random people, and by a girl in an “extortion” relationship. Its a long story lol, see this ) , and it was the place that I (and everyone else) have ranted, bitched and shared all kinds of dirty laundry.

Even if I wanted to, all that has already been said. Since its been about a decade since the exchanges, then one would think (hope) that its all been erased long ago from the various logging and  backup servers of my ISP, yahoo, microsoft and the other email providers and platforms that  I have made use of along the way. And one would hope that its safe to assume that the said logs are NOT being maintained by another source (a “big brother” entity). And of course, one would hope that the records of my more easily accessible current online footprint are not being “followed” or otherwise utilized by some “big brother” entity.

But even if so, it does not really worry me. I do not use social media “check in” apps very often  (once while out of town, and with someone at home), nor do I announce most of  my movements on social media for obvious reasons (great way for intruders to know when one is, and isn’t, home). But I do utilize location-based apps for various tasks (such as finding a business, or directions). And I do use the internet and other “grid” technologies for communications of all kinds.

In my mind, it all comes down to being smart about technology usage. Though social media encourages you to update it with your every movement, don’t be stupid. Lock down your devices with passwords and lock codes, should they ever wind up in the wrong hands. Run a closed and hidden wireless network in your home (most routers have a check box or other switch that asks if you want it to “broadcast” or not. To connect, you just need to write down a little bit of  extra information). Keep up with your various software patches and updates, and keep your anti virus and spy-ware definitions current.

And in the case of the thing that most are worried about, online spying, just don’t be stupid.

Something tells me that someones daily life and/or coffee schedule is not going to be of interest to the government. Even intimate, and other personal conversations, should be of no interest to anyone else.

There are those of the opinion that people like me should be more outraged, because of the possible abuses that could happen with all of this information on each of us (blackmail or extortion?). And I suppose anything is possible, especially when it comes to people occupying prominent positions in society.
But the only solution to that, would be a total unplug from the information grid. No email/phone/SMS (texting)/IM/Social media or any of that. Keep it face to face, or by mail (there are tough laws regarding the tampering of ones mail).

Or if you just want an added layer of encryption protection, try out a service such as hushmail ( ). For browsing with some sense of security, try out a tor bundle ( ). This will not render you completely anonymous  to such entities as the NSA, but if you had not already figured it out, being totally anonymous online is almost (if not totally) impossible.

Almost anything is possible, when it comes to the future of technologies. Will our past words and actions as posted and broadcast online eventually come back to haunt us? I do not know. Like a comet on a crash course for earth being discovered a week in advance at at any point down the road, we have no way to tell. So unless you want to entirely  unplug, all you can do is use the technology in a smarter fashion.
Past words and actions online can not be undone, but you can help by not adding to the pile. If your a politician or otherwise in a position of authority, and your actions might put you in a risky position, then isn’t it time to rethink those actions?

Granted, if someone is corrupt, then I am pretty sure that the concept of right Vs wrong has left them long ago, and that argument won’t hold any weight. Not to mention that the whole argument is based on the assumption that these big entities are eventually going to become manipulative bullying forces, which is (at this point anyway), a big leap of conspiracy and imagination.

But even with that said, it is still good to consider how the technologies in our life may be making us vulnerable.

This incident in the Ukraine is a great example. Another is in Egypt a couple years back (the cellular, and other communication grids, were switched off on account to the civil unrest).

While the tech of today has its place as an invaluable tool for civil rebellion, one has to be careful how its used. Being reliant on it is risky, when the people your protesting against, have power to manipulate it.

In Egypt, they attempted to stifle the resistance by limiting their communications with one another, and more importantly, with the outside world. And in the Ukraine, they used the core functionality of the technology, against its users (the protesters).

At first, I found myself questioning the claims of the 3 Ukrainian carriers who were claiming to have no hand in the text message incident. But now that I think of it, it is very possible, with the way cellular technology works. A mobile phone always connects to the base station (tower)  with the strongest signal.

tower 400px-Frequency_reuse.svg

You have probably seen some form of the above around where you live, especially if your in an urban area. Your cellphone phone utilizes these in its functionality. Many (most?) mobile networks are set up  like the one shown above.  As you move around within the grid,  the carrier monitors your signal strength, and hands you off the the strongest tower for your current location. Ignore the numbers (they just show how frequencies are reused between different cells, within the network).

There are some cases however, where there may be a problem with traffic flow that is specific to one cell (called a Macrocell ) in the network. Any event  that brings a lot of people together in one location, or any event that makes many utilize there devices all at once (particularly in one cell of the network),  can cause congestion. It is particularly bad today, because most people have smart phones (data use has a very large footprint on mobile networks). If your stuck in such a situation, text if possible (it uses a fraction of the resources, or bandwidth, that a phone call  or data transfer does).

Some carriers, seeing these congestion issues coming, set up mobile (or temporary) base stations in the vicinity of the event, in order to capture a large part of the traffic in the area, keeping the cell itself relatively clear.

There are a few different variations of this technology (Microcell , Picocell  and Femtocell ).

Unfortunately, this technology can be misused, as the Ukrainian protesters seem to have discovered.

All the regime would have had to do (and it seems, DID do), was set up one (or more, depending on the area that has to be  covered) of these low powered base stations for each cellular band used in the region (each carrier typically  uses one or more), then wait. Being cellphones always gravitate to the strongest base stations, the phones will eventually “hand off” from the area towers, to the micro cell.

What happens after this, is questionable.

It might be possible that the traffic flowing though the microcell (calls, SMS texts etc), could be vulnerable to eavesdropping. It might be possible that the regime just wants to intimidate people (as it seems was the goal of the infamous Ukrainian text message). Or maybe the goal is just numbers and names, by keeping track of all the mobile phones (and therefore, their owners) that connect with the microcell. Or any combination of the above.

I love technology. All this technology makes our lives easier in many ways, and certainly is a great asset to situations of civil unrest and discourse (as has been seen in so many situations of late). But one of the hidden prices we pay for this modern technology, is both vulnerability and privacy.

But though there is no way to entirely vanquish these concerns (short of a total disconnect), there are ways you can protect yourself. Here are my rules of thumb:


Your main worry should NOT be the NSA, Can/AM Governments or any other “big brother” agencies. Your main worry should be cyber criminals, hackers and others that use the vulnerabilities of the internet (and the ignorance of many of its users) to enrich themselves.


You (theoretically) should only be of interest to the NSA and other authorities, if you engage in activities that would MAKE you come onto their radar (terrorism, child pornography, other cyber crime etc). And if your still worried, just use the rule of thumb that someone is always watching or listening. Treat every conversation by digital proxy, as if your in a quiet room full of people.


Though the technology of today may make resistance and activism more easy then ever to accomplish, think carefully before utilizing these tools. And also, make sure that you do not become completely tied up to the technology, should access to it for whatever reason, cease.

Facebook/twitter/ other social media outlets can be great for recruitment, but being fully public means EVERYONE can see what is being said/planned etc. Emails, Private/SMS and other forms of messaging and phone calls can be eavesdropped on. And lastly,  cellular devices can be homing devices, tied directly to our identities.

That is not to say that its not IMPOSSIBLE to use modern technology to be an activist. Just remember that any digital accounts that you are using, and any digital technology that you own, is inherently tied to you.

The incident in the Ukraine is interesting, because it serves as almost a trial run for such future scenarios. What interests me, and what we will find out as time goes on, is how the cell carriers in the area, behave towards the government’s inevitable request for the protester’s subscriber information.

Even though the government likely only has the hardware identity and the phone numbers associated with each user (unless they eavesdropped and learned from that information), they probably won’t have any names, which the carriers have. Which means that it all depends on if the carriers are willing to give up the information.

Would your carrier or ISP be likely to sell you out?


This story just came out today on the CBC, detailing how the Canadian spy agency CSEC (Communications Security Establishment Canada) tracked travelers who utilized an  unnamed Canadian airports free wifi.

It was quite noteworthy because the airport tracked the devices (smart phones, laptops, tablets) for months afterward VIA connections to wifi terminals in coffee shops, bus terminals and other public spaces.  Like a cell phone, each wifi device has an electronic identifier of its own, of which CSEC got a hold to enable the tracking.

Looking at this at a glance, it seems that this was just a trial run, to see how well this system would work (being it was only though 1 airport as far as we know). And it looks like the only information gathered by CSEC was the devices location metadata (where it is), and not the contents (nor the activities) on the devices.

But it adds a bit of a twist to the above piece. It is a lot easier to set up a rouge wifi station (or take over an existing one. For example, in an airport), then it is to set up a mobile cell tower. Being that most mobile devices have built in wifi capability, also adds to the equation.
Another thing that adds to it, is that wifi is a very short range frequency, which means that it could  be used to track a device (and its owner) right to a building, or other location.

What is unclear to me at this point, is if the devices have to “join” a wifi network for it to pick up (and transmit to CSEC) the devices location. For example, if you walk though an airport with wifi, or if your in a coffee shop but not utilizing the wifi (some places have it, but with terrible speed, so I opt for 3G).

Either way, another thing to keep in mind.

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