Ordinary Ukrainians wage war with digital tools and drones

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The author is the founder of sieveda media company for European start-ups supported by FT

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

Responding to calls from the Ukrainian army to track down Russian troop movements, Andrii Pokrasa snuck into a field one night and tracked down the column with his personal drone. His father entered the GPS coordinates into a social media app. Ukrainian artillery then located the Russian convoy. The experience was “very, very scary,” Pokrasa told Global News, but he was adamant that the Russians would not occupy his city.

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

Once limited to direct participants on a physical battlefield, war has crept into many other areas of human activity. Today’s battlefields, especially in urban areas, are crammed with cameras, sensors and surveillance equipment, all generating data that can be analyzed and used from anywhere in the world. Open-source intelligence agencies like Bellingcat and Witness have used this data, often shared on social media, to verify claims from both sides and investigate alleged war crimes.

Satellite images from Planet give an overview of a mass grave in Bucha, Ukraine © Planet

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

The company argues that it has helped increase transparency, reduce uncertainty and military misperception, provide humanitarian assistance and counteract disinformation. “It’s really a different era,” says Will Marshall, co-founder of Planet. “Governments can’t get away with shit anymore.”

However, sharing such data requires moral and political choices. Marshall acknowledges that his company has a responsibility to ensure his data is not used for sinister purposes. Planet’s Ethics Committee carefully screens all potential clients. For example, the company will never sell its data to Russian companies under sanctions. “It’s easy to say that technology is neutral and that we’re not playing God. But we’re playing God,” he says. “Ethics is complicated.”

Some effort is being made to establish norms and standards to regularize open source intelligence. Earlier this year, the Berkeley Protocol was released, outlining the procedures required to turn open-source information into legally admissible evidence for the prosecution of war crimes. Governments are also considering how best to verify and disseminate such information.

However, observers distinguish between civil society organizations and corporations that take responsibility for what they produce and share, and more informal groups of foreign hacktivists looking to help Ukraine. When playing defense, these “white hat” hackers can help find and plug gaps in Ukraine’s digital networks. But when they engage in disinformation campaigns or cyberattacks on Russian targets, the results can be unpredictable. They can be exploited by intelligence agencies that engage in propaganda and by criminal gangs that use extortion. They also run the risk of criminal prosecution or revenge attacks.

“It’s understandable why Ukrainians, defending their homes and their lives, would resort to any means possible 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 else: “Whoever gets involved understands the consequences better.”

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

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