How did Google Maps' traffic data become a tool for the Ukraine war?

To protect civilians, Google removes global access to traffic data in Ukraine.
Ameya Paleja
A topographic map of Chernobyl and Pripyat River, Ukraine.FrankRamspott/iStock

In the light of the Russian invasion, Google has temporarily disabled global access to traffic data from Ukraine. This move is aimed at protecting the citizens of Ukraine since it prevents outsiders from knowing which routes have civilian movement, The Verge reported

With the proliferation of technology, intelligence gathering is no longer limited to specialized military equipment and missions. A programmer working from a basement can gather can also gather much intel by sifting through data available in the public domain. This isn't just a hypothetical scenario but an event that actually came to pass in a research lab in California, hours before Russian troops invaded Ukraine. 

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Predicting Putin's Play

Jeffery Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, and his team of researchers had been monitoring data from Google Maps in Russia last week when they spotted a traffic jam in the early hours of Thursday morning. The traffic was at Belgorod, 25 miles north of the Ukrainian Border and exactly at the same spot where the team of researchers had spotted a large Russian military unit using radar, a day earlier. 

Speaking to Business Insider, Lewis said that the jam was unusual for early hours in the morning and the Russian troops hadn't camped at the site. Instead, they were lined up along the roads, which is characteristic of a unit ready to attack. 

Lewis's team saw the traffic jam move southwards confirming that the troops were moving towards Ukraine, hours before the public announcement Vladimir Putin made at 6 am local time. 

The data for Google's Maps application comes from anonymized location data from users of its Android operating system. It wasn't that Russian troops were invading with Android phones in their pockets but it was the effect of those Android users in the region who were stopped in their tracks as the military convoy moved southward. 

The Big Data

Lewis pointed out to Motherboard last week that big data companies are not ready to accept how much information can be gleaned through the data they capture. The Verge pointed to an instance from 2017 when a map of user activity was released by tracking app Strava that ended up revealing the location of military bases in the U.S. 

However, the shutting of global access to Ukrainian traffic data is surely an informal acceptance of the fact. If Lewis and his team could predict the Russian movement, it is likely that Russians are also tapping into data to spot where Ukrainian civilians are. 

Following the invasion, Google Maps data also showed routes Ukrainians took to flee the capital city of Kyiv, which came under siege a day later. Roads outside the city were either clogged or blocked by the authorities, Business Insider reported. 

What about users in the country?

While announcing the changes, Google has revealed that the feature would not impact users inside Ukraine. All those using turn-by-turn navigational data in the country would still be able to see live traffic information and make their choices of routes. The decision has not been taken unilaterally but after due consultation with government officials in Ukraine. 

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