Ukrainian and Russian Civilians Are Depending On These Apps
Isadora Teich wrote this article
Apps have become an integral part of life across the globe. Increasingly, we are seeing people turn to them in times of crisis. Recently, we have seen the people of Afghanistan take to apps to try and navigate the Taliban takeover.
Right now, Ukrainians are using apps to survive the Russian invasion. And everyday Russians are using them to keep up on news and stay connected as they flee Russia.
Let’s take a look at what kinds of apps have been integral in these difficult times.
As Russia has been bombing civilians, Ukrainians have been seeking innovative ways to help protect themselves. According to research firm Apptopia, one of the most downloaded apps has been a program that alerts people before Russian airstrikes hit certain areas.
The creators of the app say it has been designed to help protect people even in situations where they can’t hear the warning sirens.
In Times Of Disaster, People Turn To Messaging and Offline Map Apps
Many people in Ukraine have downloaded encrypted messaging apps, as well as apps that allow you to access maps without internet access.
According to Apptopia spokesperson Adam Blacker:
“Apps surging to the top of the charts in Ukraine are Walkie-Talkie apps, VoIP apps, offline navigation apps, VPN apps, and Radio comms apps. These are apps we normally see trending during natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes.”
Many of the messaging apps they are utilizing allow offline communication as well, through radio signals or Bluetooth. This can be critical when key infrastructure is attacked in war.
Popular Communication Apps in Ukraine
This type of app has been leading the rankings in Ukraine this month on both the Play Store and App Stores. The most popular apps in Ukraine include:
-Zello Walkie Talkie
Signal stands out due to the fact that it offers comprehensive end-to-end encryption. Only users can read the messages that they send each other. In addition, no outside parties can listen to their calls. According to cybersecurity company Kaspersky:
“Unlike Telegram, whose end-to-end encryption only works in the famous secret chats for two users, Signal also encrypts group chats and calls from end to end.”
Within the last year, Telegram began trending in North America as a place where crypto-enthusiasts and people with right-wing political beliefs could gather.
However, currently, in Ukraine, it is largely being used to spread real-time news. The app’s feature of enabling public and private feeds allows people to see what is happening before the news publishes it.
Unlike other social media apps, there is no advertising on Telegram. Also, what you see is not manipulated by algorithms. This means that users do not have to see photos of the horrors of war sandwiched between fast food ads.
Telegram has also become almost the only place where the Russian people can get real information about the war as it unfolds. A Russian entrepreneur living in Brazil told NPR:
“There are several million Russians who can lift their head up from propaganda and try to look for other sources, and I’d say that most look for it on Telegram.”
Issues With Telegram
One major thing that sets Telegram apart from other social media sites is that it doesn’t moderate content, for better or for worse.
This is a pro in the sense that it cannot become a propaganda machine weaponized by a single CEO or company ideal for profit, as many might say Facebook has become.
However, with no moderation, anything can spread. Many Ukrainians and Russians are turning to Telegram for real news. However, many are taking to it to spread false information and propaganda too.
It is truly a mixed bag. You can find Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy posting directly to Telegram, as well as a number of popular pro-Kremlin channels.
In addition, many experts say that Telegram is not as secure as it seems to be. Messages are not encrypted by default. Users have to know to turn that function on. Apps like Signal and WhatsApp, on the other hand, encrypt messages automatically.
According to Eva Galperin with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has been very critical of Telegram for it’s lack of security features:
“There is a significant risk of an insider threat or hacking of Telegram systems that could expose all of these chats to the Russian government. There are a lot of things that Telegram could have been doing this whole time. And they know exactly what they are and they’ve chosen not to do them. That’s why I don’t trust them.”
Starlink, Radio Signals, and Offline Map Apps
Ukrainians are turning to radio apps like Radios Ukraine and Simple Radio, as well as location tracking. In times of crisis, having ways to communicate and navigate without internet access is critical. Maps.me is an app they are using to access maps and GPS without an internet connection.
One of the most installed apps in Ukraine is Flightradar. This shows information about air traffic. In addition, Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet service Starlink has become incredibly popular.
This month, in a historic move, Ukraine’s vice prime minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, tweeted at Elon Musk asking him for Starlink satellite internet service stations in Ukraine to help people navigate all of the internet outages. Elon Musk responded by actually sending them.
Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 26, 2022
In difficult times, people often turn to tech to try and survive. In this situation, we can see all of the powerful implications of how deeply technology has already integrated into our lives and society in general.
Despite its controversies and security risks, Telegram has become critical for Ukrainians and Russians. While Ukrainians fight for their lives, Russians are fleeing their country in numbers not seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
According to the New York Times, this is due to rumors of impending martial law, closed borders, and conscription. On top of this, the Russian state has shut down all independent news outlets and has already begun making war protestors and journalists who speak out disappear.
In the midst of internet outages, having apps for messaging and navigation that work offline is key. Tracking airstrikes is absolutely imperative for safety as well.
This is a complicated and tragic situation, and tech has a big part to play in how people stay alive, stay connected, and understand it.
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