Tech is not enough

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is being impacted by technology more than any previous war. Technology brings the war to the screens as well as being used as a weapon to retaliate.

Ukrainians with cameras are sharing their experiences with millions around the world over social apps, all in real time. That enables us to get a minute by minute accounting of the unfolding tragedy. While Putin and his regime are censoring and manipulating the news at home, Russians are finding snippets of news in the review sections of websites and chat rooms. One of the big hopes is once the Russian citizens learn what’s really going on, they’ll turn on their leaders.

Technology is also being used to damage the Russian economy by imposing sanctions and shutdowns of services across many sectors, simply by turning off electronic switches. Examples include Apple and Google turning off their electronic payment systems, Visa and Mastercard suspending their credit card processing, Apple closing all of their retail stores, and the Sabre reservation system preventing access by Aeroflot Airlines, essentially closing them down.

We’re also seeing some positive actions from Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, each doing more to remove the Russian trolls and bots. God knows, they’ve had years to understand the issue, and now they are finally taking some action. These companies don’t want to be on the wrong side of history. And doing good is contageous. Here’s a list from CNET of other actions being taken by others in the tech industry:

  • At the request of the Ukrainian government, rocket company SpaceX activated satellite internet service in Ukraine through its Starlink system, a move that keeps the country connected to the web even as Russia attacks its websites. AirBnb has offered free housing to Ukrainians fleeing the fighting, and US phone carriers have waived fees to customers who need to call Ukraine. 
  • Big social networks, including Facebook-owner Meta, Twitter and Google-owned YouTube face familiar questions about dealing with disinformation and propaganda. All three have placed restrictions on Russian state-run media’s access to ad platforms and continue to fact-check posts deemed false. Microsoft and Google have limited downloads of Russian state-run media services from their app stores.
  • Microsoft has worked with US and Ukrainian government officials to warn of hacking threats. After consulting with the Ukrainian government, Google disabled a feature that displays traffic conditions in its widely used Maps app, a move that could potentially make navigating more difficult for the Russian military. Apple ceased sales of its products in Russia following an appeal from Kyiv, which asked the consumer electronics giant to block Russians from accessing its app store because “modern technology is perhaps the best answer to the tanks, multiple rocket launchers (hrad) and missiles.”
  • On Thursday, Microsoft noticed signs of an attack aimed at Ukrainian digital infrastructure. Brad Smith, the software giant’s president, said in a blog post the company flagged malicious software used in the attack and advised Ukrainian officials on how to defend against it.
  • The huge social media company, Meta, said it would ban RT and Sputnik, two of Russia’s most important external-facing media arms across the European Union, at the request of some governments. Nick Clegg, a former UK deputy prime minister who oversees global affairs at Meta, said the company was taking the step because of the “exceptional nature of the current situation.”
  • Jack Sweeney, a teenage college student, is publicly tracking the movements of private jets owned by Russian oligarchs. “It would be pretty cool to see one of their planes seized,” Sweeney, 19, told CBS in discussing his Twitter account, @RUOligarchJets, or Russian Oligarch Jets. 

The cyberattacks in the West from Russia that many feared, so far haven’t materialized. It may be that their abilities have been overblown or have just yet to occur. So far that’s been one of the few pleasant surprises, especially contrasted with the West abilities’ to shutdown many of Russia’s businesses. With so much of the world interconected through networks, the internet and cloud servers, we can and will continue to do a lot to hurt Russia.

In spite of tech playing a big impact in trying to counter the invasion, it’s doubtful it will be sufficient to slow down much of the destruction and death. It’s hard for technology to counter the weapons of war. The use of tech to get back at Russia may make us feel better, but much more will be needed to stop the war.

by Phil Baker