4 min

Ukraine: mobile apps, a new weapon

Ukrainian forces have managed to stop, and reverse, Russia’s progress, thanks to Western support. Ukrainian ingenuity has also been a decisive factor in several areas, particularly in militarizing mobile apps.

In order to communicate, Ukrainian forces make use of conventional methods, like radio waves, but also innovative resources like mobile apps. Telegram, WhatsApp, Discord and Signal are among the most frequently used. With these new means of communication, fighters in the field can communicate with each other and their rear base, in real time, on relatively secure lines.

However, the Ukrainians are not only using apps to communicate. For example, the warring parties all use the Telegram app. Groups use it to broadcast propaganda, and to fight back against enemy propaganda. Since February 2022, the number of users has increased in Russia and Ukraine. Today, 25 million Ukrainians (over half the population) and 70 million Russians are Telegram subscribers.

Ukrainian forces also grasp the potential of mobile phones and apps for warfare. They therefore innovated and diversified their uses. Some of them have become key in the conflict, like Air Alert, which was designed by Stepan Tanasiychuk, the Ukrainian developer behind and at the head of mobile app company Stfalcon. The inspiration for the app came from the work of Ajax Systems, which for years designed apps capable of alerting users even when their smartphones were on silent or airplane mode.

Millions of Ukrainians, soldiers and civilians alike, are currently using Air Alert. The app lets them know when to head for cover. “Soldiers have told us this app saved their lives. We’re very proud to be taking part in our nation’s fight,” stated Valentine Hrytsenko, head of marketing for Ajax Systems, a Ukrainian security system company.

Multifunctional apps

In early 2020, the Ukrainian government launched the “Diia” app. It serves as a digital driver’s license, and provides access to public services, from vaccine certificates to building permits. With the war, “Diia” evolved. It now includes remote job offers for unemployed Ukrainians, a cash payment portal for citizens fleeing the conflict, and even online courses to train for new jobs, as well as math lessons.

The app’s developers took it a step further and militarized it. Ukrainians can now submit GPS-tracked footage of Russian military observation, as well as tips on suspicious persons who might be invaders or saboteurs. “The data is displayed on a map used by Ukrainian intelligence officials who work on defense and counterattacks,” highlights Mykhailo Fedorov, the Ukrainian Minister for Digital Transformation.

These new apps are sometimes used in controversial areas, like facial recognition. Indeed, Ukraine uses software to help identify the bodies of fallen Russian soldiers so they can notify their families, Mykhailo Fedorov, the former Ukrainian Prime Minister and Minister for Digital Transformation, announced to Reuters.

He also stated his country uses the Clearview AI facial recognition software provider to find the social media accounts of these dead Russian soldiers. “Out of courtesy to the mothers, we are posting this information on social media to at least let the families know that they have lost their sons and can come and claim their bodies,” he said.

“When a Russian hears a drone, he knows that death is coming for him”

Ukrainian forces have combined the use of conventional weapons with their mobiles phones and apps. As artillery plays an increasingly important part on the battlefield, precise coordinates are crucial for the warring parties. Thus smartphone-controlled drones can locate enemy targets from a distance. Landmarks such as roads, rivers or even power lines can be pinpointed thanks to drone footage (and sometimes broadcast live to Ukrainian chiefs of staff via apps such as Discord).

“After each flight, we review footage on a big screen TV for more detail or simply to get a better picture. This helps us locate the targeted area. All we need is a map with coordinates. This will show up on Google Maps or an equivalent. The main thing is to be able to recognize one detail and pinpoint its exact location. And that’s it,” explains “Phantom”, a Ukrainian army drone pilot.

Once these geographical points are located and drawn on a mapping app, they become GPS coordinates. Artillery can then fire with formidable precision or Kyiv’s forces can send a drone to take out the target. In order to defend against such attacks, the Russian Army has set up a considerable number of stations along the frontlines in order to scramble drone signals.

“If I had a more powerful device, I could remain at a greater distance. Generally, the work last around 30 to 35 minutes. We’re experiencing difficulties due to signal jamming. Many Russian stations are scrambling our signals; we can lose our recordings and even our drones, so we try to pick the signal back up, but it’s a problem. And I think this is due to the fact that these are civilian drones. If we had military drones, such jamming could be avoided,” explains “Phantom”.

The Ukrainian pilot says that he mainly uses civilian drones like those of the DJI brand. He explains that civilian and military drones have devastating effects on the enemy. “We bomb them at night because during the day they can fire on our drones. [Vladimir] Putin’s soldiers hate our drones. They throw everything they have at them because these devices provide a lot of information, and can also be used to bomb them. After each drop, they get angry and start shelling our positions or the whole line. Because of the noise the Russians can tell where the drone is coming from. But it doesn’t matter, it remains a very powerful psychological weapon. When a Russian hears a drone, he knows death is coming for him.”

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