Using your phone in times of crisis

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Secure communications are particularly important in times of crisis. Just being aware of surveillance has paralyzing effects in the way we exercise speech, which is often attacked by all sorts of actors, from criminals to our own governments. With the war in Ukraine and political repression in Russia, it is essential for Russians and Ukrainians alike to let loved ones know they are okay, to stay informed and to organize.

It’s no surprise that in times of crisis, many people default to the most widely available system for staying in touch: the mobile network. But communicating on mobile networks carries risks that you should be aware of. Not only are there many tools to intercept communications on these networks, but anyone with access to the network does not even need to engage in interception. This makes your communications vulnerable to malicious hackers, companiesemployees, law enforcement and foreign government agencies.

The mobile network does not encrypt calls or texts end-to-end, nor does it conceal your location. Anyone with access to the network can see all of this information.

Phone calls and text messages are easily intercepted, especially when routed over older cellular networks: 2G. That’s why we’ve asked Apple and Google to offer users the ability to turn off 2G. Google has rolled out this option for its latest devices, but it is generally not available in Russia or Ukraine. Apple, we are still waiting.

Although we’ve urged people to stay away from 2G where possible, 3G, 4G and 5G networks are also not secure options for voice and text communications, especially for those in Russia. and in Ukraine. By using these networks, your communications are not protected by end-to-end encryption, which means that anyone who intercepts them, including intermediaries, can see and hear the content of your communication.

If you shouldn’t use the traditional mobile network for calls and texts, what should you use?

There are many apps that provide end-to-end encryption for voice and text conversations, regardless of the network used to transmit the communications. But there are limits to these protections, because they are not encrypted metadata offers a lot of information about you. Metadata is the information transmitted with your message. For example, this can include who sent a message, the recipient of a message, and the location of the sender.

Even when using end-to-end encrypted messaging apps, your location is still available through the mobile network while your device is connected to it. This is necessary for the system to work. When someone calls you, for example, the network needs to know where to send the call. While obviously very useful, it also means that anyone with access to the network can get your location. Cell-site simulators (CSS) can also be used to locate people near the CSS. Reports claim that the Russian military not only destroyed 3G and 4G towers in Ukraine, but also installed CSS there – an act that apparently backfired and also made Russian communications vulnerable.

No matter where you are, and especially in Russia and Ukraine, you should not rely on phone calls or text messages to protect the privacy of your communications with government actors. Regardless of your network generation, end-to-end encrypted messaging apps such as WhatsApp, FaceTime Audio, Theema, Wire, Signal, or Viber will provide much more security for your calls and messages. For two-factor authentication, or 2FA (the code you get to log into your account), you should try to use an app over text when possible.

Because everyone has a different threat model, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of different types of communication will help you make informed decisions about what’s best to do, which apps are best suited to your risk, and when to turn off. your phone, or leave it at home if possible.

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