Text Message Tells Ukrainian Protesters Their Cellphones Are Being Tracked

But everyone is denying involvement in the eerie message.

Not in Iowa? Then Tough Luck Texting 911

Flickr/Sleepyneko

Protesters and others in the area of the protest in Kiev on the morning of January 21, local time, all received the same text message: "Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance." The wording of the message echoes that of a new law forbidding participation in protests deemed violent, The New York Times reports. But no one seems to know exactly who sent the text message, or how.

The Ukrainian protesters are agitating for more integration with the European Union, and against new national laws restricting public assembly. They're becoming increasingly violent, fighting with police. Protest leaders told The New York Times that's in part because the Ukrainian government is encouraging radicals and trying to discredit the movement with things like these text messages. The leaders also say the government is employing more old-fashioned tactics, such as busing in unemployed dudes to carry around sticks and threaten protesters.

Meanwhile, because everyone is denying involvement, it's unclear exactly how the creepy text messages reached phones and whether protesters are really being tracked. The most obvious explanation is that a government official asked cellphone service companies for data on which phones were in section of Kiev at a certain time. U.S. law enforcement asks for data like that frequently. If that's the case, the Ukrainian government could have a list of phone numbers that it could treat as a list of suspected protesters.

However, Ukraine's interior ministry said it wasn't involved in the text messages, The Guardian reports. Ukrainian cellphone companies Kyivstar, MTS and Life said they didn't send the messages or share their subscribers' location with the government, The New York Times reports.

Another possibility is that someone used a cell tower to blast out this message to every phone in the area, similar to the way American agencies blast out emergency messages. In this case, the messaging wouldn't necessarily come with tracking, although again, it would be easy enough for the Ukrainian government to request such data from a company along with the blast.

A statement from Kyivstar in response to media attention suggested a possible mechanism for sending the messages that wouldn't involve cellphone companies:

We know that there is equipment, so-called 'pirate base stations,' which allow SMS distribution or calls to all mobile telephone numbers of all operators within a particular area. But, as an operator, we are unable to identify the activity of these stations.

Whatever truly happened, the message shows what's possible, The Washington Post reports. "This incident highlights how location metadata—contrary to NSA defenders' claims that such data isn't sensitive—is incredibly powerful, especially in bulk, and can easily be used by governments to identify and suppress protesters attempting to exercise their right to free expression," Kevin Bankston, policy director for the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, told the Post.

In Kiev, the text didn't seem to achieve its goal. Intense police and protester fighting continued afterward, The New York Times reports.