Elon Musk on Thursday advised Ukrainian users of his satellite-based Internet service, Starlink, to operate the system only when needed and to place antennas “as far away from people as possible,” over concerns the Russian military could pick up the signals and target them.
The remarks from the chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX come after Starlink hardware arrived in Ukraine this week, following Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov’s Feb. 26 Twitter entreaty for Musk to provide the service.
He replied in under 12 hours: “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route.”
But after repeated warnings from Internet security experts that Russian forces invading Ukraine could identify Starlink signals and fire at them, Musk posted a cautionary tweet: “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.”
Fedorov said he would heed the warning. “Sure @elonmusk. We are going to use them for Ukrainians also after our victory,” he tweeted.
Russia has tracked satellite communications to target battlefield enemies in conflicts going back to its war with Chechen forces in the 1990s, John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, wrote on Twitter. In the 2010s, Russia gained experience in spotting, geolocating, then launching missiles at satellite Internet terminals run by the Islamic State and others in Syria, he added.
Using satellite Internet could mean painting a target for Russian forces, Scott-Railton said. Musk’s warning for Starlink users is “the responsible thing” to do, he said on Thursday.
Musk also said he would be updating the Starlink software to reduce peak power consumption so the system could be powered from a car cigarette lighter. He added that mobile roaming would be enabled so signals could be maintained from a moving vehicle.
Musk was responding to Fedorov, who had asked for help with generators that could keep Starlink systems and lifesaving services online, citing concerns that they could be disabled by Russian attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure.