Big Tech in Combat Zone

Big Tech in Combat Zone

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is shaping up to be a testbed for technologies like data science and artificial intelligence – be it for evil or good

With the Ukraine warfare raging on, Big Tech companies have now openly joined in. While Microsoft is providing cyber security assistance to Ukraine, Apple has removed the Russian state new channels from its app store. Google has disabled the Live traffic layer, in addition to Google Maps information on how busy restaurants and stores are. Facebook owner Meta has blocked state-run media accounts like Russia Today on both Facebook and Instagram in the EU, the UK and Ukraine. Twitter has also taken down Russian state-run media accounts in EU and Ukraine and blocked ads both in Ukraine and Russia.

Moreover, Apple has disabled live traffic and live incident data from Apple Maps in Ukraine in a bid to safeguard the resident population’s locations, apart from removing Russian state-led news outlets RT News and Sputnik News from its App Store globally – except for those accessing the store in Russia. Russians are also currently unable to use Apple Pay as the bank that facilitates the transactions in the nation – VTB – has been hit with strict economic sanctions.

This war is a testbed for technology

A slew of data science and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are being used in the frontlines of this conflict that is causing untold misery to millions and hurting the world economy that was poised for a post-pandemic rebound. The use of technology had actually started even before the tanks had begun to roll in. There are four ways in which data science and artificial intelligence (AI) are being used in the Ukraine war:

  1. for analysing troop movements from satellite imagery – the most obvious,
  2. facial recognition to identify combatants and refugees without papers, and to reunite families,
  3. cyber-attacks on each other’s information technology, finance, and banking infrastructure, and
  4. AI enabled autonomous weapons systems to target and kill without human intervention – the most undesirable use of all.

Microsoft joins in cyber defence

Several hours before the launch of missiles or movement of tanks on February 24, Microsoft’s Threat Intelligence Center (MSTIC) detected a new round of offensive and destructive cyberattacks directed against Ukraine’s digital infrastructure. They immediately informed the Ukrainian government about the situation, including identification of the use of a new malware package (denominated FoxBlade), and provided technical advice on steps to thwart the malware.

Within three hours of this discovery, signatures to detect this new exploit had been written and added to Microsoft’s Defender anti-malware service, helping to defend against this new threat. More recently, the company has provided threat intelligence and defensive suggestions to Ukrainian officials regarding attacks on a range of targets, including Ukrainian military institutions and manufacturers and several other Ukrainian government agencies. This work is ongoing.

An Open-Source war

This war has become an Open-Source war with non-state actors joining the conflict. Hackers came from around the world. They knocked Russian and Ukrainian government websites offline, splashed anti-war graffities across the home pages of Russian media outlets, and leaked data from rival hacking operations. And they swarmed into chat rooms, awaiting new instructions, and egging each other on.

Facial recognition plays a key role

On March 12, Ukraine’s defence ministry began using Clearview AI’s facial recognition technology, the company’s chief executive told Reuters, after the US start-up offered to uncover Russian assailants, combat misinformation, and identify the dead. Ukraine is receiving free access to Clearview AI’s powerful search engine for faces, that enable authorities potentially vet people of interest at checkpoints, among other uses – added Lee Wolosky, an adviser to Clearview and former diplomat under US presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden. The plans started forming after Russia invaded Ukraine and Clearview Chief Executive Hoan Ton-That sent a letter to Kyiv, offering assistance.

Autonomous kill

Ukraine has been using the Turkish-made TB2 drone which can take off, land, and cruise autonomously, although it still relies on a human operator to decide when to drop the laser-guided bombs it carries. It can also use lasers to guide artillery strikes. Russia, meanwhile, has a “kamikaze” drone with some autonomous capabilities called the Lantset, which it reportedly used in Syria and could use in Ukraine too.

The Lantset is technically a “loitering munition” designed to attack tanks, vehicle columns, or troop concentrations. Once launched, it circles a pre-designated geographic area until detecting a pre-selected target type. It then crashes itself into the target, detonating the warhead it carries. Russia has made AI a strategic priority. PresidentVladimir Putin said in 2017 that whoever becomes the leader in AI “will become the ruler of the world.” But at least one recent assessment from researchers at the US government-funded Center for Naval Analyses says Russia lags the US and China in developing AI defence capabilities.

Tracking troops

AI is also being applied to analyse the vast amount of open-source intelligence coming out of Ukraine – everything from TikTok videos and Telegram posts of troop formations and attacks uploaded by average Ukrainians to publicly available satellite imagery. This could allow civil society groups to fact-check the claims made by both sides in the conflict, as well as to document potential atrocities and human rights violations. That could be vital for future war crimes prosecutions.

While companies owning such technologies always issue a caveat that they want them to be used for humanitarian purposes only, there is little one can do once these systems and the associated databases are introduced to a war zone. Then there can be no control over how these will be used and/or misused. For instance, a soldier’s family might be targeted after he is identified using facial recognition techniques.

War is terrible. But it has often played a pivotal role in advancing technology. And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is shaping up to be a key proving ground for artificial intelligence – be it for evil and, perhaps in a few instances, for good, too.

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