The Apps and Software on the Front Lines of the Russia-Ukraine War

Trying Times

As the conflict between Russia and Ukraine began to escalate, one of the first casualties was people’s access to free-flowing information and a functional internet. Russian president Vladimir Putin has disabled major websites such as Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Netflix and many others deemed Western propaganda. In Ukraine, constant bombing of infrastructure has made internet access spotty at best in many areas of the country. Despite these obstacles, both Russian and Ukrainian people have found ways to access and share information online.

A Shift in Priorities

Leading analytics firm Sensor Tower tracks data on the most downloaded apps, and this information gives insight into the shift in priorities of the people affected by the conflict. The number of downloads in the region for social media and online gaming apps has declined sharply, while downloads for VPNs (virtual private networks) and communication apps have skyrocketed. 

The Ukrainian people have prioritized downloading apps which allow encrypted messaging, such as Telegram and Signal. Other popular downloads include air raid apps which push real-time alerts that can warn users of imminent airstrikes. There are even apps that allow Ukrainian civilians to report Russian troop movement directly to Ukrainian intelligence via geotagged videos. Ukrainian Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov told the Washington Post that they are receiving tens of thousands of tips every day.

Recruiting an IT Army

Another area in which apps are making a major impact on the front line is through logistics and supply chain management. There are apps for planning and coordinating deliveries of supplies to civilians in need, and apps for planning and tracking evacuation routes if the fighting gets too close. Ukraine has even embraced the idea of crowdsourcing their own I.T. army. People who opt to volunteer can communicate and plan strategic DDoS attacks on Russian infrastructure through official government channels. 

The Ukrainian people have become masters of utilizing social media to fight Russian propaganda, mobilize a global anti-war sentiment, and inspire both civilians and soldiers at home. Fortunately, the country is uniquely prepared to launch this kind of cyber resistance. Boosted by massive economic investment from the West, Ukraine’s technology sector has seen enormous growth in recent years. Thousands of people work for tech startups and industry titans such as Google, Oracle, Amazon Ring and Snap. 

Tech workers and coders who once worked normal jobs now find themselves thrust into a situation of uncertainty and fear. Thousands of pissed off people who have seen their cities bombed and their lives turned upside down. The vast majority of whom still have functioning internet access. These people may not be soldiers but they’re fighting the only way they know how, on the front lines of a growing cyber war.

Untested Techniques

Even at the highest levels, the Ukrainian government has adopted an easygoing attitude when it comes to technological innovation. The Ministry of Digital Transformation released an app in 2020 called “Diia”, which means “action”, that functioned as a sort of digital driver’s license, COVID information hub, and portal for public services. Since the onset of the Russian invasion, Diia has evolved into a full-on survival companion app for Ukrainians caught in the conflict. The app regularly updates with remote job listings for people who are out of work and has a portal where Ukrainians displaced by combat may claim government stipends for survival. There’s also a set of educational video lessons in a variety of subjects so parents can still teach their children, even if they are out of school. Ukrainian citizens can use the app to report Russian troop movement or leave tips for ‘suspicious’ people believed to be saboteurs. Fedorov says the data is aggregated and displayed visually as a map with tagged locations of interest. 

Recently, the Ukrainian government has also begun modifying aspects of its Diia app in controversial ways. What began as a facial recognition feature used to verify Ukrainian identities for basic government services has now been modified to scan and ID deceased Russian combatants. In a statement to the Washington Post, officials said the technology is still “in very early development” and would likely rely upon technology provided by contentious tech firm Clearview AI. 

Ukrainian officials say the app will be utilized to fight back against Russian disinformation campaigns. Specifically, it will be used to refute Russian claims that only a small group of fighters have been deployed in Ukraine, and that Russian casualties are minimal. There are also plans to use the app’s facial recognition system to alert the families of dead Russian soldiers who are likely being kept out of the loop by the Russian government. 

Fedorov has also stated that they are working on automated systems that dial Russian phone numbers en masse and share grim details of the war in an effort to drum up anti-war sentiment within Russian borders. “We have all changed. We started doing things we couldn’t even imagine a month ago,” says Fedorov in a translated Instagram post. “Thank you to everyone for the fight.”

For Ukrainians who want to contribute to the war effort via means outside of the Diia app, they can send reports and tips to eVorog, an official government chatbot on the messaging app Telegram. After a verification process that confirms the user is not Russian, the chatbot collects information on troop numbers, location, and equipment. That information is sent to intelligence officials so they may “quickly repel the enemy.” Ukraine’s top law enforcement agency, the Security Service, also runs its own Telegram bot aptly named “@stop_russian_war_bot.”

Everyone Does Their Part

The Ministry of Digital Transformation and the Security Service aren’t the only agencies releasing online tools for the war effort. The Office of the Attorney General has also rolled out their own platform for reporting war crimes. Ukrainian citizens can submit text, photo, or video evidence alongside geolocation data in order to help catalog potential war crimes for further investigation. The Ukrainian government uses these tips to create daily estimates of war crimes being committed. Reportable offenses within the app include “torture (beatings, rape, mutilation), murders, injuries to medical personnel, and use by the occupier of civilian clothes;” a grim reminder of what Ukrainian civilians are experiencing. 

Other Ukrainian government efforts include the Information Ministry’s Center for Strategic Communications and Information’s use of Google forms to organize anti-war protests in several cities around the globe. The Ukrainian International Legion of Territorial Defense has also established their own website for recruiting international volunteers to fight alongside Ukrainian troops. An interactive map on the site gives data on how many volunteer fighters have enlisted and traveled to Ukraine from their respective countries. Currently, Russia’s numbers show -17,000 ‘visitors’, Ukraine’s unconfirmed tally of the number of Russian soldiers killed in action to date. 

Some citizens are using apps to have a more direct impact on the battles raging across Eastern Ukraine. The Wall Street Journal has reported Ukrainian volunteers in Voznesensk city coordinating and directing air and artillery strikes on Russian troops through simple Telegram chat channels. 

Beyond government efforts, many Ukrainian companies have rolled out their own tools to aid in wartime survival. Prykhystok is a tool for coordinating room shares and housing for refugees fleeing active combat zones. There’s also a website for requesting evacuation which pairs volunteer drivers with families seeking escape. Ukrainian freight-tech startup Cargofy has also released their own tool, Pomich, which links volunteer truckers with people who are trying to transport food and supplies where they are desperately needed. There’s even an app called Play for Ukraine in which the user plays puzzle games while the app utilizes their internet connection to levy DDoS attacks on Russian websites. 

Throughout this conflict, one thing has become clear. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has clearly lit a fire under thousands of intelligent and capable tech workers, many of whom are clearly inspired by the idea that they are building tools not only in the defense of their homeland, but for the overall greater public good.

Jonathan Blog Image

Lithios is a web/mobile app development shop located in Raleigh, NC. This is a blog written by one of our guest contributors.

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