How the tech sector is responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

28 Feb 2022

Image: © coffeemill/Stock.adobe.com

Amid the crisis in Ukraine, tech players including Google, Facebook, Twitter and SpaceX are taking action.

It’s day five of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and many across Europe and the world have been offering to help in the ways that they can, not least the global tech sector.

As governments deal with sanctions and strategies, tech companies such as Google, Twitter, Meta and SpaceX, among others, have been stepping in with resources and responses.

Google Maps

Future Human

A day after a Ukrainian agency urged citizens to remove traffic and road signs to confuse Russian troops, Google played its own part by temporarily turning off traffic data in Google Maps.

A spokesperson told media outlets yesterday (27 February) that the traffic layer feature and live information on how busy places are had been disabled in Ukraine, after consulting with regional authorities, to help protect Ukrainian citizens trying to avoid encountering Russian troops.

These places include shops, restaurants, metro stations and other buildings where Ukrainian civilians might have taken to for shelter from Russian attacks that have been making inroads in Ukrainian cities over the past few days.

However, Google confirmed to Reuters that the live traffic tools are still available to drivers using the navigation directions feature in the region.

Dr Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at Middlebury Institute in Monterey, California, tweeted screenshots of a live ‘traffic jam’ near the Ukrainian border last week, hours ahead of the invasion, using Google Maps.

He clarified that the data likely reflected civilians “getting stuck at roadblocks” as a result of Russian movement and not from Russian soldiers carrying smartphones.

App ecosystem

The spread of Russian soldiers in Ukraine is not the only thing Big Tech is being urged to help stop. After an appeal from the Ukrainian government, Google banned Russian state-sponsored news app Russia Today (RT) from its Play store in Ukraine to help curb the spread of misinformation around the invasion.

“In response to a legal request from the Ukrainian government, the RT News app is no longer available for download on Google Play in Ukraine,” a Google spokesperson told reporters on Saturday (26 February).

New users will not be able to download the app on their smartphones, while those who already have it installed will not receive any updates from RT News.

On Friday (25 February), a day after the invasion started, Ukraine’s vice prime minister Mykhailo Fedorov tweeted to say he had contacted Apple CEO Tim Cook and urged him to block the Apple App Store and other services for Russian citizens.

In the letter he posted, he said that the rationale behind the move was to “motivate youth and active population of Russia” to stand up against their government and urge it to “proactively stop the disgraceful military aggression”.

Fintech

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is impacting all areas of the global economy, and the EU, US and other nations said on Saturday that “selected Russian banks” would be removed from SWIFT, the international bank transaction system. “This will ensure that these banks are disconnected from the international financial system and harm their ability to operate globally,” the countries said in a joint statement.

While a list of affected banks is still being drawn up, sanctions already imposed on Russian financial institutions are impacting the payments space.

Russia’s central bank said on Friday that cards issued by several Russian banks are now unable to use Apple Pay and Google Pay services.

In the area of money transfers, Lithuanian fintech Paysera is halting transfers to and from Russia, while UK-based Wise is limiting money transfers to Russia and Ukraine.

Ukraine’s central bank is also cracking down on digital money transfers, in a move that could provide a boon to the crypto industry. Millions have already been donated to Ukraine in bitcoin.

But if Russia is facing further financial sanctions, that country may too turn to crypto. While the status of cryptocurrencies is in flux in the country, companies could use crypto tools to evade sanctions.

With that in mind, the European Central Bank has called for quick action on crypto regulation.

Social media

As breaking news flooded online channels, Russia took steps to restrict social media access in the country. On Friday (25 February), Russian authorities said access to Facebook had been limited.

“Russian authorities ordered us to stop the independent fact-checking and labelling of content on Facebook by four Russian state-owned media organisations,” tweeted Nick Clegg, vice-president for global affairs at Facebook parent company Meta.

“We refused. As a result, they have announced they will be restricting the use of our services.”

On Saturday, Twitter also said it was aware that access to its platform had been restricted for some users in Russia. BBC’s Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg tweeted earlier that day, saying his message “took a while” to get through.

Internet monitoring group NetBlocks confirmed the restriction of Twitter in Russia from Saturday morning and said that Facebook servers have subsequently been restricted as of Sunday. “The restrictions are in effect across multiple providers rendering both social media platforms largely unusable,” the group said in an update.

While it is possible to go around these restrictions using a VPN, NetBlocks added that “many users do not have access to VPN software and the usage of both Twitter and Facebook in Russia is expected to fall significantly as a result of the measures”.

Social media platforms have also been taking action in light of the crisis in Ukraine. As well as fact-checking and labelling content, Facebook is not allowing Russian state media to advertise or monetise on its platform.

Similar steps have been taken by Google-owned YouTube, which said on Saturday that it is pausing several Russian channels’ ability to monetise and “significantly limiting” recommendations to these channels. This includes RT, which is also being blocked on YouTube in Ukraine.

Twitter said on Friday that it is temporarily pausing all advertisements in Ukraine and Russia “to ensure critical public safety information is elevated and ads don’t detract from from it”.

Internet and telecoms

As far as tech’s role in helping Ukraine in this crisis is concerned, even the sky isn’t the limit. After internet services in Ukraine were disrupted by the Russian invasion, Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted that his low-Earth orbit Starlink internet service would be available in the country.

His viral tweet was a response to Fedorov in which he directly requested Musk to provide Starlink stations to Ukraine.

Fedorov told Musk: “While you try to colonise Mars – Russia try to occupy Ukraine! While your rockets successfully land from space – Russian rockets attack Ukrainian civil people!”

While Musk replied that the service is now active with more terminals “en route”, it is not clear when they will reach Ukraine or how many there are. Moreover, as one CNBC reporter pointed out on Twitter, Musk has a history of making false or inaccurate promises in times of need.

Cybersecurity

With hybrid warfare also taking place in the digital space, one Ukrainian researcher has taken the cybersecurity world by storm after publishing more than 60,000 internal messages from notorious hacker group Conti.

Conti, reported to be based near St Petersburg and operating from the eastern Europe region, is behind the ransomware responsible for the devastating HSE cyberattack last summer.

According to BleepingComputer.com, a Ukrainian researcher working with Conti was angered by a blog post made by the hacker group declaring its allegiance to Russia in the ongoing conflict.

In response, he accessed the back-end of Conti’s XMPP chat server and extracted 60,694 internal messages of the group between 21 January 2021 and 27 February 2022.

The messages are expected to be a vital component of any investigation into the group. “With that said, it is also damaging to undisclosed victims who paid ransoms to hide their attacks, decrypt data, or prevent the leak of data,” BleepingComputers wrote in a tweet.

Meanwhile, activist hacker group Anonymous has pledged to help Ukraine in the cyber fight against Russia.

Tech research

The world of tech research has stepped into the action, too. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of the world’s top universities for STEM, announced that it is severing ties with a research university in Russia it helped establish a decade ago.

The Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology is based in Moscow and has close ties to the Putin government, according to an AP report.

MIT said on Friday that it plans to end the MIT Skoltech Program, while US authorities have long said the association poses a risk of espionage and technology theft.

With additional reporting by Sarah Harford

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com