Suspicious satellite antennas were discovered on Russian embassy roofs. The discoveries are also reminiscent of wiretapping by the American NSA.
The drone photo shows satellite antennas and a suspicious “material hut” on the roof of the Russian embassy in Warsaw (Poland). (Image: Frontstory.pl)
Electronic bugging devices on the roofs of Russian embassies have been discovered in several European capitals. The discoveries did not really come as a surprise to experts. Nevertheless, the focus is now increasingly on the extent of signal intelligence (SIGINT) operated from embassy rooftops.
SIGINT stations were discovered on the roofs of embassies of the Russian Federation in both Stockholm and Warsaw. In Warsaw’s Nizhny Mokotów district, at Beethovenstraße 3, you can see around ten satellite dishes on the roof of a ten-story residential building of the Russian embassy, including two larger dishes with a diameter of a good four meters. Frontstory.pl reporters had a drone at their disposal, which provided high-resolution images from the roof of this building.
These recordings show that this facility for monitoring satellite communications is no longer in operation. Almost all of these dishes lack the feed modules, i.e. filters, LNBs, and converters for converting the high satellite frequencies. These are necessary to transform the intercepted signals from the high gigahertz range to lower frequencies. Only then can these data streams be evaluated with special equipment on the floor below.
In principle, these set-ups do the same thing that normal satellite systems do for TV programs. In the case of the Russian satellite antennas, however, it is about intercepted data streams that are not intended for Russia.
The SIGINT facility in Warsaw
Aerial view of the discovered SIGINT facility in Warsaw (Image: Frontstory.pl )
Frontstory reports on 45 diplomats from the Russian Federation who have had to leave Poland since February 2022. There is also talk of 21 Russian intelligence officers who were active under diplomatic cover. Among them were all satellite technicians who could be identified as such.
That shouldn’t even have been complex, because the “purpose” of the entire embassy staff can be seen from the accreditation forms in the respective country. As a result, the operation of the Warsaw SIGINT station could no longer be kept going, because this stuff was – as everywhere in Europe – probably also responsible for the evaluation of the data streams. Of course, there are no photos of the highly secret equipment behind it.
Methods used by the NSA in the Snowden era
What is striking, however, are the “material huts” that each of these stations has. Externally identical superstructures can be found in all embassies of the Russian Federation. These little huts, which are covered with fiberglass mats, contain small dishes with variable feeds, through which the data streams of the local area controllers of the cell phone stations are tapped and traffic data analyses can be derived from them. The area controllers have to know at all times which mobile phones are registered where in order to forward the telephone calls to the addressed end devices.
The same methods have been known by US embassies since Edward Snowden’s revelations. Such traffic data analyses were practiced continuously. The system designed by the NSA for this is codenamed Einstein-Castanet, the PowerPoint slides can be found in the pool of documents leaked by Edward Snowden. The technologies used in the USA and Russia are unlikely to differ much.
The purpose for this traffic data is quite clear in the case of the US embassies. The US embassy in Vienna’s 22nd district at the United Nations in Vienna immediately knew that an Iranian delegation traveling to negotiations on the nuclear program, for example, comprised twelve people because their mobile phones were in a radio cell of any network operator at the airport Vienna Schwechat was booked. The US system can only access traffic data, but this gives a good overview of which mobile phone is currently logged in and where.
One of the dishes on the ward in Vienna’s 22nd district. This dish is equipped with Ku-band microwave components from the Swedish company SMW. The dish has a so-called “Skew Angle” gear. This allows changing the angle at which the intercepted signal hits the receiving part of the antenna so that the best possible distance between vertical and horizontal polarization is given. This dish is used to hunt down satellites whose signals would otherwise be difficult or incomplete to receive. (Image: Source wishes to remain anonymous)
The only major difference is that the US shares the intercepted traffic data with the local national intelligence services, in the case of Austria this is the military intelligence agency Heeresnachrichtenamt (HNAa). This has long since ceased to be a secret service secret, but was only confirmed in a personal conversation at the beginning of March by the head of the new police intelligence service DSN in Austria, Police Major Omar Hajjawi-Pircher. The DSN, which has only existed for a short time, is the successor to the scandal-ridden BVT news service, which, following a controversial raid by FPÖ-affiliated police officers, did not receive any data from the Western services after this action received more. They assumed that the data would end up in Russia.
According to its own statements, the DSN does not yet have any competencies in the area of signals intelligence, because this is part of the Austrian Armed Forces, i.e. the Army Intelligence Office. The HNAa, in turn, operates an ECHELON station called Königswarte together with the NSA near the border of Slovakia.
This is the feed from one of the four large dishes on the roof of the Russian UN embassy in the 22nd district of Vienna. The feed from the Canadian company Norsat relates to the C band (4 to 8 GHz). Complex filters are required there because the lower range in the C-band overlaps with the frequencies of the 5G mobile radio stations. (Image: Source wishes to remain anonymous)
Example KA-SAT: A sequence of SIGINT
An example of how the data collected by Russia’s SIGINT stations is used became apparent at the beginning of the aggressive war in Ukraine. On February 23, KA-SAT’s satellite internet suddenly went out of service. Launched in 2010 into a geostationary orbit at 9° East, the satellite offers broadband services over the eponymous KA band (26-40 GHz). As a result of a sabotage action, a number of European wind turbines were temporarily uncontrollable because the data service via KA-SAT no longer worked. In May 2022, Russia was blamed for the KA-Sat failure by the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borell.
However, the disturbances in wind power were a side effect of the Ukraine war, since the attack on the KA-Sat data services had been aimed at the Ukrainian army, which had used KA-Sat dishes to connect to the command centers on the front lines. The fact that Russia even knew that the Ukrainian army was using these KA-Sat channels proved fatal. KA-Sat was built by EADS Astrium and has a planned lifetime of 15 years, the satellite has since been sold to US operator Viasat. The day before the attack on Ukraine, the KA-Sat modems were paralyzed by a software update that was as forced as it was malicious. The army of Ukraine was suddenly without data traffic to the front.
The largest station is in Vienna
The largest of all Russian stations is in Vienna, with more than 20 dishes alone in the complex of the Russian Embassy at the United Nations. However, the Austrian federal government has so far steadfastly refused to turn off the signals to these mirrors. This is justified by the “permanent neutrality” of Austria.
In fact, according to critics, Vienna is about cheap natural gas from Russia, which is still being supplied. The government under Sebastian Kurz had increased Austria’s dependence on Russian natural gas from 60 to 80 percent. The FPÖ maintained a temporary partnership with Russia and Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.
In a briefing by the new DSN secret service, it was reported that four more Russian diplomats were recently expelled, including the local head of the Russian civilian secret service SVR, which operates the station in Vienna, and two technicians for satellite systems. In total, only eight Russian diplomats were expelled from Austria, even though there are two embassies of the Russian Federation in Vienna. This is the regular embassy in Vienna’s 3rd district, which also has satellite dishes. Other “diplomats” are accredited to representations at the UN and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). A total of 75 people work as administrative and technical staff in Vienna. So there are enough technical personnel of the Russian Federation here,
Attempts to calibrate the antennas in Vienna’s 22nd district to find out their targets have so far failed. The georeferenced images of the official city survey (MA 41) in Vienna do not have a high enough resolution. Also available, better-resolution photos have no geodata. This also makes it impossible to transfer the azimuth of the dishes, i.e. the angle at which the dishes are relative to the equator, to the absolute geodata of the satellites.
Hardly any expulsions in Sweden
The article in the Swedish daily Expressen complains about the same as in Austria, namely that the government of the still neutral Sweden has just expelled four Russian diplomats. The Swedish security police knew they were spies. They were left in the country for “political considerations”. The Stockholm station should therefore continue to be active.