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Starlink and Russia have Changed the Internet Forever

Jason M. Pittman, PhD
By Jason M. Pittman, PhD

Two things have happened recently that have had major impacts on technology. First, Starlink (i.e., SpaceX) shipped thousands of satellite dishes into Ukraine1 in response to Russia’s initial electronic and cyber warfare against Ukraine’s existing technology. This was a big deal and received a lot of attention and coverage from news stations, as it should.

Russia then began cyber warfare operations against satellite-based internet access systems including satellites in orbit.2 While this may seem standard procedure for a modern military, particularly Russia’s, these actions were anything but normative conduct. What the news did not report specifically is how this changes the online global society.

The deployment of technology into an active warzone by a private company without obvious direction from its host nation is unprecedented. In this case, Starlink is a U.S. company. Starlink independently decided to deploy infrastructure into an active military conflict.3 It is possible the U.S. government issued direction to Starlink, but that is not confirmed. Ukraine may have requested assistance from Elon Musk, but that is just speculation and there is no evidence to this effect, either.

Private organizations have a history of involvement in wartime operations. In modern times, this included private military contractors such as Blackwater (now, Academi). However, these private organizations’ participation has been at the direction of the host nation. These contractors were legally bound to operate as if they were conventional national forces.

In contrast, Starlink’s decision to become involved in the Ukraine/Russia conflict was autonomous and independent. This is quite a departure from the norm. On one hand, as global citizens, we ought to celebrate a private company’s decision to intervene in such a material, meaningful way. Restoration of internet access services allowed Ukraine to stage an effective defense. Internet access permits the world to witness the brutal Russian offensive in high-definition video. On the other hand, the move signals the clear existence of a technocratic oligarchy, which is where the power and influence of how technology is used rests with a small number of people or companies.

The Russian cyberattacks targeting satellite-based internet access systems is also unprecedented. This is not to suggest Russia has not employed electronic and cyber warfare before. Russia has displayed a standardized military playbook since 2007. The playbook first appeared in Georgia and then in Estonia.4 Russia is also known to have employed cyber operations to interfere with elections, cause remote blackouts, and infest systems with ransomware in the annexation of Crimea5. It is not surprising Russia included electronic and cyber warfare in their opening military actions against Ukraine. What is unprecedented is the targeting of satellite-based internet access infrastructure.

stock photo of a 'hacker'Specifically, on the first day of the Ukraine invasion, there were outages in ViaSat’s network.6 The outages also extended to one of ViaSat’s satellites in orbit, Ka-Sat. Ukraine immediately went dark, and several dozen European countries experienced service interruption because of the cyberattacks. The fallout even effected systems such as wind turbines in Germany. This demonstrates the incredible power cyber warfare possesses. This also shows the inability to contain or limit the effects unlike traditional military weapons.

Cyber weapons are not visible in the same way as traditional weapons. There are no explosions, no clouds of dust or balls of fire. There may not even be as much as a detectable blip in communications traffic. However, the lack of direct physical evidence does not mean there are no effects.

In the context of Russia and Starlink, the unobservable effect is a change in nature of the internet itself. Russia’s opening attacks against Ukrainian infrastructure was not a surprise. However, we should be paying attention to the willingness to attack satellites in orbit. We need to observe the downstream effects on completely unrelated infrastructure such as Germany’s wind turbines.

The magnitude of risk presented in attacks on such systems should be the focus. Not only is this unprecedented move evidence of the ability for a nation to cripple global internet communications, but it is also a sign that cyber warfare could easily slip into a full-out military war. What if a Starlink or ViaSat satellite crashed into other space infrastructure? What if a satellite became disabled and crashed to the ground?

One can argue the impact to several dozen countries, not including Ukraine, is collateral damage. However, Starlink willfully deployed satellites into Ukraine after the initiation of wartime operations. By deploying Starlink into an active warzone, one can infer that Musk’s company has become a technocratic oligarchy because it has exerted control over a nation’s internet access. We should be paying attention to the ease with which critical infrastructure was handed over by a private company. We should pay even more attention to how easily such infrastructure could be taken back, leveraged for political clout, or yielded maliciously.

A technocratic oligarchy acted. A nation-state responded with hostility. In the end, it is all of us as global internet citizens who lose. We lose because we are now vulnerable to collateral effects of cyber warfare and subject to the whims of an authority without control or restraints. These points evidence a change to the internet forever.

4 Donald L. Buresh, Ph.D., JD, LL.M. (2021) Russian Cyber-Attacks on Estonia, Georgia, and Ukraine, Including Tactics, Techniques, Procedures, and Effects. Journal of Advanced Forensic Sciences - 1(2):15-26.

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