Smartphones Emerge as Key Tool for War in Ukraine – Tech News Briefing

This transcript was prepared by a transcription service. This version may not be in its final form and may be updated.

Zoe Thomas: This is your Tech News Briefing for Friday, February 24th. I’m Zoe Thomas for the Wall Street Journal. Before the war in Ukraine started, the country was known for its embrace of technology and its thriving information technology sector. A year in, both have played roles in the country’s fight against Russia. On today’s show, we’ll have an update from a Ukrainian CEO we heard from last year, and WSJ’s bureau chief at large Stephen Fidler will join us to discuss how smartphones are playing a significant role in the war. That’s after these headlines.
The Justice Department has accused Google of destroying information needed in an antitrust lawsuit. In 2020, the DOJ filed a case against Google, claiming the company maintains its status as gatekeeper to the internet through an unlawful web of agreements. According to a court filing, the regulator has asked a judge to sanction Google for its past practice of setting employees’ chats to auto-delete despite having told the court it would preserve records required for litigation. A Google spokeswoman said the company disputes the DOJ’s allegations.
Prosecutors have leveled new charges against Sam Bankman-Fried, founder of bankrupt cryptocurrency exchange FTX. The new indictment unveiled yesterday includes conspiracy charges. Prosecutors claim Bankman-Fried routinely tapped FTX customer assets to provide interest-free funding for his own expenses. Bankman-Fried pleaded not guilty to prior charges. A spokesman for the founder didn’t respond to a request for comment.
US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo has announced plans for how to award funding from the Chips Act. Raimondo said the $53 billion would be used to bring together fabrication plans, research and development labs, final packaging facilities for assembly of chips, and the suppliers needed to support each phase of the operation. At Georgetown University Thursday, the secretary said the US had fallen behind in producing chips since 1990.

Gina Raimondo: The United States accounted for 37% of global chip manufacturing. Today, it’s 12%. Not long ago, at that time, the United States manufactured nearly all of the world’s most sophisticated chips. Today we manufacture none. In fact, we rely on one company in Taiwan for 92% of our most sophisticated chips.

Zoe Thomas: The goal of the Chips Act is to bring that manufacturing back to the US. Our trade reporter, Yuka Hayashi, says that has bipartisan support.

Yuka Hayashi: But people also point out that the government faces a lot of challenges in doing this program. And one concern that we have heard a lot from the folks in the industry is that the money’s not enough. And it could be spread too thinly, and that would dilute the effect of this money.

Zoe Thomas: You can hear more from Yuka in yesterday’s A.M. edition of our sister podcast, What’s News. And the European Commission is banning TikTok from staff devices. A spokeswoman said the move was aimed at protecting the commission against cyber threats. Officials declined to comment on whether a specific incident had prompted the rule. The ban follows similar steps taken by the US federal government and most states. A TikTok spokesman said the European Commission’s ban was misguided and that the company continues to improve its safety and security practices.
Okay, coming up, smartphones can capture where you are and what you’re experiencing. The war in Ukraine is showing militaries why that’s not such a good thing. We’ll discuss after the break.
Today marks one year since Russia invaded Ukraine. The war’s toll shows on Ukraine’s people, its infrastructure, and its once-thriving tech sector. Last summer, I spoke to some Ukrainian tech CEOs about how the war had impacted their businesses and what they thought their sector’s future was. I caught up with one of them, Oleg Rogynskyy, CEO and founder of a few days ago. is based in California, but it had a lot of employees in Ukraine before the war. Many of them have relocated to Prague or Toronto. For those who stayed, the war has created extra challenges.

Oleg Rogynskyy: We obviously have introduced additional security protocols for the few folks who are still in Ukraine in terms of them being far from the front lines, their systems being secured, and obviously if the security situation changes, we have an ability to remotely lock things down, wipe them, and make sure that the customer data security is preserved at all times. But also, definitely there is impact on employees in terms of rolling blackouts, an ability to work and work time, et cetera. And so we sent in batteries. We are trying to help as much as we can, but there are definitely physical limitations to how Ukraine operates from business perspective right now.

Zoe Thomas: Tech has defined this war, from the sector it shook up to the tools used to fight it and the ways it’s being captured and shared across the world. In fact, smartphones have made this the most intensely documented war in history. With us to discuss the impact of that is Stephen Fidler, WSJ bureau chief at large in London. Hi, Steven. Thanks for joining us.

Stephen Fidler: My pleasure.

Zoe Thomas: Let’s talk about some of the ways smartphones are being used first by militaries. For armies, are these new tools of war?

Stephen Fidler: They’re fairly new. They’re being used in several ways to find targets and locate targets. Both are sort of unwittingly and wittingly, if you like. Unwittingly, the use of smartphones by Russian soldiers on the front has allowed Ukrainian forces to geolocate concentrations of troops and target them. So essentially, that’s poor battlefield security, if you like, but it has allowed them to do this. And of course, this isn’t the first war in which that has happened. There’s also been help by, if you like, partisans or ordinary citizens in occupied territories using smartphones to locate, for the Ukrainian forces, concentrations of troops and ammunition and that kind of thing. And that’s an issue that blurs, if you like, the difference between competence and civilians in warfare. But it has been something that has been used by the Ukrainians significantly during the war.

Zoe Thomas: Are there Russians using this as well? Are they taking advantage of geolocation technology, for example?

Stephen Fidler: It’s hard to say. I suspect that’s true. One thing that seems to have happened is that the operational security of the Ukrainians has seemed to be better than that of the Russians. Ukrainian forces seem less likely to be using cell phones at the front or smartphones at the front, less likely to be phoning home and that kind of thing. Of course, it’s probably impossible to stop this with an army, but it does seem that the Ukrainians, in terms of security, have been rather better at this than the Russians.

Zoe Thomas: What about the role of social media, because, I mean, that’s a big reason we go on to our smartphones?

Stephen Fidler: Absolutely. I think it’s been an enormous factor in the war, really. And it helps people, I think very broadly, to understand what’s going on in the battlefields in ways that probably weren’t widely understood before. They also provide an element for propaganda as well as disseminating facts. A lot of the narrative of the war, if you like, has come through platforms like Facebook, but Facebook is banned in Russia. So there are specific platforms there, one called VKontakte, which is used in Russia; it’s like Facebook. And another one called Telegram, which is widely used in Russia and in Ukraine. This is a barely curated platform with very little censorship in what goes on. It’s not like Twitter and that kind of thing. So there are all kinds of outpourings available on Telegram of atrocities, but other things, many of which violate the Geneva Conventions, but they have provided an enormous amount of footage and helped create the narrative, the widely understood narrative, that we have of the war.

Zoe Thomas: So is this armies, those who are involved in the war, posting on social media, or is this also everyday Ukrainians who might be posting some of these stories as well?

Stephen Fidler: It is both. So it’s everyday Ukrainians. Obviously, we see quite a lot from what happens when there are attacks on targets in Kyiv in the capital, but we’re also seeing stuff from the front lines. I suspect that’s more, shall we say, curated by the Ukrainian military authorities. So they get a narrative out. And the same is true of the Russians, but again, I think the Russians have probably been less disciplined in this. And we see quite often elements that come from the Russian side that are probably not conducive or not very helpful to the Russians in the conduct of the war. But yeah, both civilians and soldiers.

Zoe Thomas: You mentioned smartphones and social media being used to potentially document war crimes. A few months ago on the show, we had a conversation about smartphones being used in this way in Ukraine. But one issue has been just the amount of data that’s being collected by so many smartphones on the battlefield. How are the groups who are getting this information dealing with that overwhelming amount of data coming in?

Stephen Fidler: You’re absolutely right. That’s a huge issue for them. One of the groups that I’ve talked to, it’s called Mnemonics, and it’s a Berlin-based non-profit that has documented and attempting to document war crimes. And it has a sister organization in Syria. And in Syria, over the course of, say, 11 years, they have about 5 million pieces of recordings and other things, videos of the war, which they have archived. So far, in a year of war in Ukraine, they have 2.8 million. And this is years of footage. For someone to sit down and look at all that would take years. But they’re archiving it, giving it a special identity, so it can’t be subsequently altered. And as well as looking at it manually, they’re using technologies like computer vision, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to try to identify key elements of the footage. These are things that will develop, will become probably better at the tasks that they’re supposed to do. And groups like Mnemonics are hoping that this will allow for a reckoning and possible war crimes tribunals at the end of the war.

Zoe Thomas: All right, that was Stephen Fidler. Thanks for joining us, Stephen.

Stephen Fidler: You’re welcome.

Zoe Thomas: And that’s it for Tech News Briefing this week. TNB’s producer is Julie Chang. Our supervising producer is Melony Roy, and our executive producer is Chris Zinsli. I’m your host, Zoe Thomas. Thanks for listening and have a great weekend.

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