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HomeTech NewsStarlink terminals are falling into the wrong hands

Starlink terminals are falling into the wrong hands

SpaceX’s Starlink touts its high-speed internet as “available almost anywhere on Earth”.

In the real world, its reach extends to countries where Elon Musk’s satellite-enabled service has no agreement to operate, including territories ruled by repressive regimes.

An investigation has identified wide-spanning examples of Starlink kits being traded and activated illegally. How they are smuggled and the sheer availability of Starlink on the black market suggests that its misuse is a systemic global problem, raising questions about the company’s control of a system with clear national security dimensions.

In Yemen, which is in the throes of a decade-long civil war, a government official conceded that Starlink is in widespread use. Many people are prepared to defy competing warring factions, including Houthi rebels, to secure terminals for business and personal communications, and evade the slow, often censored internet service that’s currently available.

Or take Sudan, where a year-long civil war has led to accusations of genocide, crimes against humanity and millions of people fleeing their homes. With the regular internet down for months, soldiers of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces are among those using the system for their logistics, according to Western diplomats.

“It is deeply concerning because it’s unregulated and headed by a private company,” Emma Shortis, a senior researcher in international and security affairs at the Australia Institute, an independent think-tank in Canberra, said of the Starlink system. “There’s no accountability on who has access to it and how it’s being used.”

Starlink delivers broadband internet beamed down from a network of roughly 5 500 satellites that SpaceX started deploying in 2019. With some 2.6 million customers already, Starlink has the potential to become a major moneymaker for SpaceX, a company that began as Musk’s way to fulfil his dream of exploring Mars and has now become the most important private sector contractor to the US government’s space programme and a dominant force in national security.

Musk, until recently the world’s richest person, has said there will be a cap to how much money SpaceX’s launch services business will make, while Starlink could eventually reach revenue of $30-billion/year. Starlink plans to launch tens of thousands of additional satellites to connect places that are too remote for ground-based broadband or that have been cut off by natural disasters or conflict.

But given the security concerns around a private American company controlling internet service, SpaceX first needs to strike agreements with governments in each territory. Where there is none, people are “proceeding to use Starlink without the proper coverage — that is quite illegal and of course should not be allowed, but it’s difficult to control and manage”, said Manuel Ntumba, an Africa geospatial, governance and risk expert based in New York.

In Central Asia, where Starlink deals are rare, a government crackdown on illicit terminals in Kazakhstan this year has barely made a dent on its use. All it did was lead to higher prices on the black market, according to a trader who imports the gear and who didn’t want to speak publicly for fear of retribution. Prior to the government intervention, customers were able to buy the company’s equipment and have it shipped via the local postal service, the trader said.

SpaceX didn’t respond when asked to comment on a written list of questions submitted on Thursday. “If SpaceX obtains knowledge that a Starlink terminal is being used by a sanctioned or unauthorised party, we investigate the claim and take actions to deactivate the terminal if confirmed,” the company said in a post on X in February.

The growing black market for Starlink has emerged in regions with patchy connectivity, where the allure of high speed, dependable internet in an easy-to-use package is strong for businesses and consumers alike.

traders working in South Darfur’s Nyala City. Starlink says on its website that a “service date is unknown at this time” for Sudan.

Haroun Mohamed, a trader in Nyala who transports goods across the border to Chad and South Sudan, said the use of Starlink by RSF soldiers and civilians was widespread. “Ever since the eruption of war in Darfur, a lot of people are bringing in Starlink devices and use it for business,” he said. “People are paying between $2 or $3/hour, so it’s very good business.”

service with a monthly charge of $200. Customers in South Africa can expect to pay about $634.09 a kit.

In Venezuela, customers similarly get around the ban by paying for the global service plan using an international credit card, according to people familiar with the market, who said its use is now “normalised”.

US President Joe Biden’s administration could tighten the export controls that apply to Starlink to keep them out of the hands of American adversaries, according to a former US government official. A security consultant who provides training to companies on the restrictions said the real key is trying to geolocate kits when they are turned on and blocking the ones that are in violation of US export controls. That would require the company to cooperate, the person said, asking not to be named discussing commercially sensitive matters of national security.

A US state department spokesman said that satellite constellations like Starlink are a key tool for providing connectivity and bridging digital divides. “We encourage companies to take appropriate measures to seek licences for operating in nations around the world,” they said.

Meanwhile, SpaceX is providing assurance to some countries that it will work with them to keep its Starlink services out of certain areas.

SpaceX has reassured Israel that it can geolocate and turn off individual terminals when it detects illegal use, according to an Israeli government official.

In Yemen, meanwhile, Starlink kits are openly for sale on social media, bought in countries such as Singapore or Malaysia, then activated on roaming. Customers pay via bank transfers in other countries or at the port of arrival. Prices are higher in Houthi-controlled areas, said one seller who asked not be named for safety reasons. That’s because telecommunications is controlled by the Houthis, who profit from the revenues, and have warned of “severe actions” against those caught using Starlink.

Facebook and WhatsApp groups offer the equipment regardless — along with tips on how to conceal the dish.