#PutinAtWar: Burner Phones Are Back In

How the Russian armed services continue to crack down on selfie-soldiers’ usage of cellular phones while on duty

@DFRLab
@DFRLab
Feb 27, 2018 · 5 min read
Left source: Pikabu. Center source: “NO! Only button phones!” at Yaplakal.com. Right source: Pikabu.

Yuri Kuznetsov, commander of the 8th Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Federation’s Armed Forces, has been in the spotlight of Russian media recently for imposing further restrictions on Russian servicemen at home and abroad. These restrictions were just some among many changes made as the Russian military was ushered into a digital era by a number of by rude awakenings.

@DFRLab previously reported on Russian adjustments to its rules of conduct regarding mobile devices and social media activity after servicemen were publicly exposed for revealing sensitive information on several occasions. The 8th Directorate of the General Staff is the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) secret service in charge of protecting sensitive information.

In an RBC article from February 19, 2018, Kuznetsov is said to have signed an order instructing that all 2G and 3G signals should be jammed on the Russian bases in Khmeimim and Tartus. The article claimed RBC had the document in possession, which was signed on February 2. The reason given for the tightened restrictions was that “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles of the Quadcopter type can follow specific signals of phone numbers”, according to an alleged MoD source, recalling a recent drone attack on Russian bases in Syria.

A couple of days before this news came out, images surfaced of an unsigned list attributed to Kuznetsov describing acceptable cell phones — none of which were smart phones — for use while on duty.

(Source: Yaplakal.com)

The image is suspicious for two reasons: It was. not signed or stamped, nor was it dated. @DFRLab was unable to confirm the authenticity of these images, but the list of phones is corroborated by the RBC article released a couple of days later. A translation of the header text read:

Means of mobile communication permitted for use in the territories (except for sensitive territories and secure facilities) of central and other military command and control bodies, units of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, military command and control bodies, formations, military units and organizations of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.

The list made sure to point out that these phones do, in fact, support texting, which might not be so obvious for the average 18-year old conscript. The price of the individual phone was also included in the list, the cheapest being 688 Rubles (about 12 dollars), a manageable price for a “burner” phone.

On February 20, the day after the RBC article and a handful of days after the original list, a scanned image appeared on Russian online image boards. The image purported to show a letter from Kuznetsov, thanking the recipient for bringing vulnerabilities regarding mobile devices to the attention of the Russian Armed Forces leadership. The most obvious stylistic difference between this image and the one above is the signature line, where Kuznetsov signed the letter as the commander of the Military Unit 18008, as opposed to the 8th Directorate. According to a document from a Moscow court case in 2017, the 8th Directorate is the same as Military Unit 18008. The letter appeared to be dated February 16, one day before the list of approved cellphones became public knowledge.

(Source: 2ch.hk via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine)

Your appeal on the issue of the use of technical means of personal use by the servicemen of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in the Russian Defense Ministry has been considered.
Work to prevent the leaking of service information when military personnel of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation use technical means of personal use with extended multimedia capabilities in military units and organizations of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation shall be conducted in accordance with the established procedure.
We express our gratitude to you in upholding your civic position on observing the security interests of the Russian Federation.

Whoever uploaded the image appeared to have first attempted to use a regular paint eraser to conceal Kuznetsov’s signature, but gave up and defaulted to the standard square tool.

@DFRLab was unable to find a separate document signed by Kuznetsov for verification. The act of self-censorship could either be to protect the commander of the secretive directorate, or to conceal that the signature was lifted from elsewhere. Earlier this year, @DFRLab investigated a similar document which proved to be fake, with the author having taken official letterhead and signatures from open sources to lend credibility to the fake. While there is nothing that would immediately suggest this image to be fake, the source of the image was dubious, as the Russian image board is a known starting point for numerous verifiably fake images.

However, Russian service branches have taken to unorthodox methods in trying to reign in conscripts and career officers alike. Not even “button phones” are safe in the Russian military when used improperly, or in restricted areas. These images, which predate the outright ban of smartphones, are both from late 2017.

In the pictures above, the punishment for cellular misconduct was to have your phone nailed or screwed to a “wall of shame”. The left image, from the Russian Navy, included the names of the individual sailors in breach of regulation, while the image on the right cautioned on the side of anonymity. The formal punishments of the servicemen were listed in the left image, which received punishments ranging from reprimand to dismissal of military service. This practice is not new, similar punishments have been recorded since at least 2013, but the recent information discussed in this article suggested a renewed effort to curb cell phone use with service members.

Conclusion

The Russian Ministry of Defense is growing increasingly wary of the security risks posed by cellular phones and is taking active measures to combat unintentional leaks by unwitting servicemen. Several unverifiable documents have surface on Russian online media purporting to represent details about the tightening restrictions, but no official word has been released to corroborate the images or the corresponding news stories.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Russia will continue taking steps to curb “selfie-soldiers”.


Michael Sheldon is an Editorial Intern at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.

DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

@DFRLab

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@DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil's Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

DFRLab

DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

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