Ordinary Ukrainians wage war on digital tools and drones

The writer is the founder of Thamesan FT-backed media company covering European start-ups

A column of Russian military vehicles outside Berezivka, 40 km west of Kyiv, was identified, targeted and destroyed in late February, thanks to intelligence provided by a 15-year-old schoolboy.

Responding to calls from the Ukrainian military to help spot Russian troop movements, Andrii Pokrasa snuck into a field one night and tracked the column with his personal drone. Her father entered the GPS coordinates into a social media app. The Ukrainian artillery then spotted the Russian convoy. The experience was “very, very scary,” Pokrasa told Global News, but he was determined the Russians would not occupy his town.

Pokrasa is one of more than 1,000 civilian drone operators contributing to Ukraine’s extraordinarily brave and resourceful defense. They do so at extreme personal risk. There have been several reports of Russian forces shooting civilians as suspected spies. Independent security experts have also warned of the dangers of blurring the lines between civilians and combatants, calling for the laws of war to be updated.

Once confined to direct participants on a physical battlefield, warfare has infiltrated many other areas of human activity. Today’s battlefields, especially in urban areas, are saturated with cameras, sensors and surveillance devices all generating data that can be analyzed and acted upon from anywhere in the world. Open-source intelligence agencies, such as Bellingcat and Witness, use this data, often shared on social media, to verify each side’s claims and investigate alleged war crimes.

Satellite images from Planet show a glimpse of a mass grave in Bucha, Ukraine © Planet

In addition to Ukrainian civilians tracking Russian troop movements on the ground, some private sector satellite companies observe them from space. One is San Francisco-based Planet, which operates a fleet of about 200 satellites in low Earth orbit. These tiny satellites photograph every point on the planet once a day, allowing the company to identify “patterns of life”. Most often, this data is used to detect river pollution, deforestation or urban sprawl. But during the war, Planet gave its geospatial data on Ukraine to Kyiv and NATO. He also shared his images with several media, including the FT.

The company says it has helped increase transparency, reduce insecurity and military miscalculations, help with humanitarian aid and fight misinformation. “It really is a different era,” says Planet co-founder Will Marshall. “Governments can’t get away with crap anymore.”

But sharing this data involves moral and political choices. Marshall acknowledges that his company has a responsibility to ensure that his data is not used for malicious purposes. Planet’s Ethics Committee carefully screens all potential customers. The company will never sell its data to Russian entities under sanctions, for example. “It’s easy to say technology is neutral and we’re not playing God. But we are playing God,” he says. “Ethics is complicated.”

Efforts are being made to establish norms and standards to regularize open source information. Earlier this year, the Berkeley Protocol was released, outlining the procedures needed to turn open source intelligence into legally admissible evidence in war crimes prosecutions. Governments are also considering how best to verify and disseminate this information.

But observers draw a distinction between civil society organizations and corporations that take responsibility for what they produce and share, and more informal groups of foreign hacktivists eager to help Ukraine. When playing defense, these “white hat” hackers can help find and close loopholes in Ukraine’s digital networks. But if they participate in disinformation campaigns or cyberattacks against Russian targets, the results can be unpredictable. They can be exploited by intelligence agencies pushing propaganda and criminal gangs determined to extort. They also run the risk of lawsuits or revenge attacks.

“It’s understandable that Ukrainians who are defending their homes and their lives are using any tool they can to defend themselves,” said Ronald Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto. But that doesn’t mean that all norms and rules are suspended for everyone: “If you’re going to get involved, you better understand the consequences.”

Technology has enabled civil society to challenge the state’s traditional monopoly on warfare. By creating an intelligence agency for the people, this development can bring real benefits and greater accountability. But we must also be aware of its dangers.

About Debra D. Johnson

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