Dear Ms. Smartphone: My family lives in France and they are using apps to follow what’s happening with our relatives in Ukraine. I live here and am honestly not familiar with using apps in wartime. I have been trying to keep up with the invasion on news and Twitter but am I missing sites? I did give up using TikTok- it just seemed contrived at this time. Mikhail, San Francisco
Dear Mikhail: It’s good you gave up on TikTok. Social media has wormed its way into apps on warfare and there have been concerns that the GPS on TikTok could compromise military operations. In fact, the Indian government banned it completely. I hope that going forward your family, both in Ukraine and in France will be safe yet able to get timely and reliable updates from each other.
Your question got me curious about other apps in war that might be used. Today’s it called “cyber warfare” and there were some interesting leads.
The app you mention for following news about the war in Ukraine is called Telegram. NPR had a descriptive background story. Two Russian brothers, the Durovs, set it up in 2014 as a way to circumvent the Kremlin and let fellow Russians learn what was happening in their country. Today, Telegram operates from Dubai and has about 30 employees. It has become, quotes NPR, the preferred news source for Ukrainians and Russians who use smartphones to track what is happening. There are private channels (like Slack) for communications with family members or friends, and public ones, for daily videos and updates. Sadly, there are allegations that the site is not secure and is being used for propaganda purposes. So, if you choose to use Telegram, keep that caveat in mind.
Premise Data & MAPPING:
Assuming your relatives in Ukraine have a smartphone or know someone who does, they might have downloaded a Google app called Air Raid Alerts. It is a supplement to the country’s existing air raid alert system and accesses the same public channel. (Here in the U.S., a similar app is used to announce an impending tsunami or provide earthquake warnings.)
But, apps for war are also being used behind the scenes by Russian-Ukraine military operations. The Wall St. Journal cites a mobile app maker called Premise Data Corp. that had to shut down its operations there. It paid smartphone users to do remote observational tasks such as photography. Bluetooth and wireless sensors on their phones might have also been accessed to map out cell networks and WiFi access points. The Kyiv government accused Premise of being a tool that Russian forces used to locate Ukrainian targets. So, quote “out of an abundance of caution they suspended operations.” A few weeks later (3/1) Google Maps began removing user-submitted locations because they were allegedly being used to target airstrikes. Again, Google officials state they removed the app for the same reasons, “out of an abundance of caution.”
When you look at smartphones in war it is a recent development that soldiers and civilians alike can send images from day to day operations. Wired magazine says this began with the Iraqi war and dates it to 2016, the battle for Mosul. This visual documentation has become a democratic way of conducting a war but is uncharted territory in terms of what it foments. Do these real-time images help civilians and soldiers process the horror of war and express their emotional angst or do they stir up factions and seed new schisms?
In Ukraine the app makers have not left this opportunity pass them by. Now, in an advanced country of cyber-coders, a well-acclaimed Ukrainian video game producer called Reface has gotten into the news business. Their popular software features let users swap out faces on video. They now compile daily video feeds of the war based on clips and images circulating on social media. They also add the face of Volodymyr Zelensky to the heroic moments. Say the founders of Reface: he is today’s Jack Sparrow, Hulk and Iron Man.
So, going back to your original question, I hope your family weathers this OK and you can find ways to stay in touch and support them. The media can help you find legitimate, reliable places to give donations and aid. But, in a recent post, I noted how hard it is to know where to get news these days. We are increasingly pulled into the war machinery. As the apocalyptic quote from Leon Trostkey quote states, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Through phones and social media, the citizen journalist or soldier shares stories (often personal) and photos (often altered). Inadvertently, these same phones share crowd sourced data, sensors, and the triangulation of location.