The hybrid nature of modern warfare is undeniable. Former disputes between world powers, historically marked by several clashes, are now fought through hidden battles, marked by the large-scale use of techniques of cyberwarfare. The United States has accused Russia of using cyber warfare against its government and its companies for years – accusations that Moscow has always denied. According to the Democrats, Russian cyber war agencies have actively influenced the results of the last American elections, for example. However, American cyber activity against Russia is apparently much more evident.
According to recent reports, cell phones used in military facilities, government buildings and foreign embassies in Russia were reportedly tracked by an American research group sponsored by the Pentagon. The researchers work at the State University of Mississippi and would be based in Starkville – Mississippi – during the operations, where they developed an application called “Locate X”, in order to track the movements of at least 48 cell phones on August 9 last year – interestingly the day after a strong explosion occurred at a Russian military facility in the city of Severodvinsk.
The experiment was conducted with the aim of demonstrating to the American military how information from cell phones and commercially available could be used for intelligence operations. According to a recent article published by the Wall Street Journal, some of the devices traveled to Moscow, St. Petersburg, Severodvinsk and Arkhangelsk, cities in Russia that are home to military command centers, while two others were detected in Cuba and Azerbaijan.
Still, it was not just the Russian military who were the victims of American remote monitoring. In addition to the phones used by the military, foreign diplomatic delegations and cell phones in Russian government buildings were also targeted. According to the media, the screening operators were not “professional intelligence analysts”, but the spy agencies may have left their mark on the project with some form of cooperation. However, it is important to note that the Locate X app – developed by Mississippi researchers and produced and commercialized by cybersecurity company Babel Street – has already sold its products to various spy agencies and defense agencies in different countries, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and others.
What most arouses curiosity about the case – and has been the subject of several rumors – is the proximity of the date of the experiment conducted in Mississippi with a major incident at a Russian military facility. On August 8, 2019, an experimental nuclear engine exploded during a test in Severodvinsk, causing five deaths and several injuries. At the time, there were huge rumors about the incident – that it had taken on much larger proportions than officially reported by Russian media. All rumors were vehemently denied by the Russian government. The choice of targets for the American experiment would probably be related to the incident, even though there is no proven relationship between the victims and the Severodvinsk case so far.
In any case, previously, it had already been reported that the Locate X app and other products of the company Babel Street were being used by the American police to track the movements of criminals, being, therefore, an “unofficial” tool of the US security agencies. The problem lies in using such methods with targets outside the US, increasing the application’s use from a mere location mechanism to a hybrid war weapon. The capture of data has a clear objective: to create the basis for a system of cooperation between the users of such private applications and American intelligence, subjecting the applications to Washington’s national interests and defense strategy. For this reason, the experimental project was conducted through a partnership between the State University of Mississippi and the Pentagon, representing an alliance between the Academy, the private sector and Intelligence.
Certainly, the occurrence in Severodvinsk was a definite reason for choosing the targets, but we still do not know if these victims detected were the first victims of the experiment. It is possible that even before Severidvinsk Russian citizens were already under American surveillance and that similar actions continued to occur after the accident – and are currently occurring. The most plausible hypothesis, given the few data collected so far, is that the incident has only spurred overactivity in the experiment, with the choice of a larger number of targets – which certainly facilitated the discovery of the tests.
In fact, what we know is that the American government continues to invest in cyber weapons for data capture and remote monitoring, promoting a broad alliance between intelligence and academia. Certainly, all governments of the great world powers invest in similar projects, but it is curious to note Washington’s speech when such actions are carried out by its geopolitical rivals – condemning them, while the same actions are carried out internally on larger scale.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.