Musk’s Starlink internet used by criminals
ATALAIA DO NORTE, Brazil –
Three helicopters of Brazilian federal agents descended on an illegal mine in the Amazon rainforest on Tuesday. They were met with gunfire and the shooters fled, leaving authorities with an increasingly familiar find: Starlink internet units.
Starlink, a division of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has nearly 4,000 low-orbit satellites in the sky, connecting people in remote corners of the Amazon and giving Ukrainian forces a crucial advantage on the battlefield. The lightweight, high-speed Internet system has also become a new and valuable tool for illegal miners in Brazil, with a reliable service to coordinate logistics, receive warning of law enforcement raids, and make payments without having to return to the city.
Agents from Brazil’s environment agency’s special inspection team and the federal highway police’s rapid response team found one of the Starlink terminals next to the pit on Tuesday, an officer involved in the raid told The Associated Press. He spoke on condition of anonymity out of concerns for his personal safety.
They also seized mercury, gold and ammunition, and destroyed fuel and other equipment used by miners in an area known as Ouro Mil, which is controlled by Brazil’s most dangerous criminal organization known as the First Command of the Capital. according to a federal investigation.
Since taking office this year, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has tried to crack down on environmental violations, particularly illegal mining on Yanomami land, Brazil’s largest territory. In recent years, some 20,000 prospectors have polluted vital waterways with mercury used to separate the gold. They disrupted the traditional life of the natives, brought diseases and caused widespread famine.
The environmental agency, known as Ibama, has seized seven Starlink terminals on Yanomami land over the past five weeks, the agency’s press service said.
Illegal miners have long used satellite Internet to communicate and coordinate, but until now that involved sending a technician, usually by plane, to install a heavy, fixed antenna that couldn’t be removed when mining sites were moved or attacked. And the connection was slow and unstable, especially on rainy days.
Starlink, which first became available in Brazil last year and quickly took off, solved those problems. The installation is done independently, the equipment works even while moving, the speed is as fast as in the big cities of Brazil and it works during hurricanes.
Starlink has long viewed Amazon as an opportunity. This was highlighted by Musk’s visit to Brazil last May, when he met with then-President Jair Bolsonaro.
“Excited to launch Starlink in Brazil to monitor 19,000 unconnected schools in rural areas and the Amazon environment,” Musk tweeted at the time.
However, that project did not go forward with the government. SpaceX and the communications ministry have not signed any contracts, and only three terminals have been installed in Amazon schools for a 12-month trial period, the ministry’s press office said in an emailed response to questions.
However, Starlink has taken off in the region and is starting to make a difference.
In Atalaya do Norte, in the western part of the Brazilian Amazon, near the borders with Peru and Colombia, Rubeny de Castro Alves installed Starlink in his hotel in December. Now he can make bank transfers and make video calls. He even started abusing Netflix.
“There are so many new things to watch that I don’t even sleep,” Alves said with a smile.
His son once flew all the way to Manaus, the state capital, 1,140 kilometers (708 miles) away, just to negotiate a conference call with a group of tourists. Today, the Internet in his 11-room hotel in Atalaya do Norte is more reliable than in Manaus, and he bought a second terminal for his cruise ship to enable communication during his 10-day trips, Alves said.
With internet in high demand, dozens of the riverside town’s 21,000 residents flock to the Alves Hotel every day. His balcony is a meeting place for teenagers who spend hours playing online games on their phones.
“It made a revolution in our city,” said Alves.
A world away in the Ukraine, Starlink has provided a battlefield advantage in the war with Russia.
Ukraine has received about 24,000 Starlink terminals, allowing continued Internet access in the most vulnerable regions of the southeast, even in the face of ongoing Russian shelling. In Ukraine’s major cities, authorities have set up “stop-points” that offer free internet along with hot drinks.
The benefits of connectivity were immediately apparent for bad actors in the Amazon, Hugo Los, operations coordinator for Brazil’s environmental agency, told the AP in a phone interview.
“This technology is extremely fast and really improves the ability to manage an illegal mine,” Los said. “You can manage hundreds of mining sites without ever setting foot in one.”
Another Environment Agency official told the AP that it is just beginning to evict miners from Yanomami territory, and the spread of Starlink has complicated that mission. The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to personal safety concerns.
An unauthorized Starlink reseller in Boa Vista, a gateway to Yanomami territory, sells the units on a WhatsApp group for illegal miners and promises same-day delivery. His terminal price is $1,600, six times what Alves pays for service at his small hotel in Atalaya do Norte. Others sell Starlink terminals on Facebook groups for illegal miners, such as Fanatics for Prospecting.
As offenders gained access to high-end internet service, the authorities themselves began using Starlink. Federal agents have set up a terminal at a new crossing on the Urarikoera River, an important corridor for miners entering Yanomami territory. The official, who briefed the AP on Tuesday about the raid, used Starlink to send photos and even heavy video files of their operations.
Brazil’s environment agency told the AP via email that it, along with other federal agencies, is studying how to block Starlink’s signal in areas of illegal mining, deeming it important to stop the activity.
The AP emailed SpaceX communications director James Gleason with questions about Starlink’s presence in Brazil and its use by illegal miners in remote areas, but did not receive a response.
AP reporter Juras Karmanau contributed from Tallinn, Estonia.
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