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Russian forces in Ukraine have been ‘hacked’ after abandoning their own secure encrypted phone system, according to investigative journalism organisation Bellingcat.
The switch to insecure messaging meant that a conversation revealing the death of Major General Vitaly Gerasimov - chief of staff of the 41st Army - was able to be intercepted by Ukrainian intelligence.
Russian soldiers have switched off their encrypted phone system after towers were destroyed and are using normal phones with local sim cards, according to Bellingcat, an open-source investigative journalism organisation.
Bellingcat’s executive director, Christo Grozev, said in a series of Tweets: ‘The idiots tried to use the Era cryptophones in Kharkiv, after destroying many 3g cell towers and also replacing others with stingrays. Era needs 3g/4g to communicate.’
‘In the phone call in which the FSB officer assigned to the 41st Army reports the death to his boss in Tula, he says they've lost all secure communications. Thus the phone call using a local sim card. Thus the intercept.’
Bellingcat specialises in uncovering information on events such as the Salisbury poisonings and events in Syria by analysing large data sets.
In the Ukraine conflict, the group has previously debunked ‘staged’ Russian excuses for war.
Stingrays are eavesdropping devices that are used to ‘replace’ normal cell towers, so that nearby mobiles connect to the listening device instead.
Watch: Anonymous claims to ‘hacked’ Russian TV services
Era is an encrypted communication system used by the Russian military: such systems mean that military units can communicate without the risk of eavesdropping.
Grozev said "In the call, you hear the Ukraine-based FSB officer ask his boss if he can talk via the secure Era system. The boss says Era is not working.
"Era is a super expensive cryptophone system that they introduced in 2021 with great fanfare. It guaranteed work “in all conditions”."
Bellingcat also claims to have identified the officer on the call: Dmitry Shevchenko, a senior officer in the FSB.
The claims have yet to be independently verified.
Throughout the conflict, groups have claimed to have intercepted Russian communications, due to units relying on walkie-talkie radios and smartphones.
British intelligence company Shadowbreak claimed to have intercepted messages which showed that Russian troops were demoralised and had ‘deliberately punched holes’ in vehicle fuel tanks to avoid reaching the front line, the Telegraph reported.
Some fixed-line internet services have been disconnected in Ukraine during the conflict, with disruption-tracking organisation Netblocks raising concerns over the Zaporizhia nuclear plant’s disconnection.
Netblocks said: "The disconnection of fixed-line internet and some mobile service in and around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in #Ukraine is raising concerns over public safety, with radiation levels no longer published and the IAEA unable to monitor."
But Russian forces are believed to be generally trying to keep mobile phone connections and internet working.
Speaking to Politico, James Lewis, senior vice president and director of the strategic technologies program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Politico: "If they can do localised shutdowns of telecommunications, they’ll do it. But in general, they’ll want to keep the phones working in Kyiv because they can listen in."
It’s also possible that Russian forces have left Ukrainian commercial networks operating as they are relying on them to communicate, Politico suggested.
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