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  • Writer's pictureVeronica Irwin

Tech's role in the Ukraine war

Good morning! Tech can solve a lot of things, but whether it can solve for peace is still unclear.


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So close, yet so far

Nothing feels very far away anymore. CNN brought once-distant wars into our living rooms, but TikTok and YouTube and Twitter have put them in our pockets. Following along with what’s happening is now easier than ever, though that’s often fraught with misinformation and lack of context, and social networks are quickly having to figure out what to take down and what to leave up.

The war is affecting all of us, whether we know it or not. WhatsApp, PayPal, Spark Mail and were founded by Ukrainians. Companies like Grammarly have major offices in Kyiv.

  • Ukraine is estimated to have about 200,000 tech workers, many of whom work for companies overseas.

  • “Our primary concern right now is the safety of our employees,” Bjorn Reynolds, CEO of the workforce management service Safeguard Global, told me. The company is “helping employees move into hotels in remote areas,” and even helping them relocate “across borders to neighboring countries like Romania.”

  • JustAnswer, with about one-third of its workforce in Ukraine, is working out how to relocate and compensate workers, as many evacuate or prepare for military service.

President Joe Biden imposed additional sanctions on Russian tech, and American companies will feel knock-on effects. The U.S. announced chip sanctions, and the administration said the European Union, Australia, Japan, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom would be following suit.

  • Biden also sanctioned 80% of banking assets in Russia, including the nation’s two largest banks, Sberbank and VTB, as well as 24 Belarusian and 10 Russian elites.

  • Earlier in the week, Biden had already sanctioned two other Russian financial institutions, Russian sovereign debt and the company heading up Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

  • But Russia still has access to SWIFT, the global financial messaging service. As Protocol’s Hirsh Chitkara reported Tuesday, some experts call sanctions on SWIFT the “nuclear option,” while others say that’s an exaggeration. Maybe that’s why countries can’t agree on whether SWIFT sanctions are worth the risk.

The war is being conducted by land, air, sea — and cyber. That last battlefield is the murkiest, where it’s hard to distinguish a flood of interest from a storm of bots.

  • Ukrainian government, foreign ministry and state service websites went down late Wednesday after a DDoS attack.

  • A “wiper” attack was also used against a Ukrainian government agency and a financial institution yesterday.

  • Rumors flew on Twitter early Wednesday that a cyberattack may have targeted Russian websites, which were returning HTTP 418: “I’m a teapot.” The error code is a long-running internet joke. Some took it as a way hackers might be teasing the Russian military. But it’s also used when a website simply doesn’t want to respond to a query. Rather than this being the result of a cyberattack, it appears the Russian government has geo-blocked military websites to non-Russian IPs.

  • In other (possible) rumors, an NBC report alleged that Biden had been briefed on unprecedented cyberattack options targeting the Russian government. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the report was entirely inaccurate.

And while the United States refuses to engage in combat with Russia, American technologists are taking a stand with their wallets. The Ukrainian government set up a special website to collect donations to fund its defense operations yesterday, but only direct bank transfers are allowed — no PayPal, WebMoney or crypto.

  • This meant that the Ukrainian government would not be able to directly accept bitcoin, to the dismay of many crypto enthusiasts on Twitter.

  • But the Kyiv-based nonprofit Come Back Alive was happy to collect crypto. By yesterday afternoon, it had already received well over $500,000 worth of bitcoin.

  • S.T.A.L.K.E.R. developer GSC Game World also asked gamers to support Ukraine.

  • Sam Bankman-Fried, CEO of crypto exchange FTX, tweeted, “We just gave $25 to each Ukrainian on FTX.” It wasn’t clear how they’d collect, but Ukraine recently legalized cryptocurrency.

  • Several companies, including Uber, have given Ukrainian employees funds to help them relocate. Uber’s advice to its gig workers, however, was to just stay home.

  • Ukraine's large tech outsourcing industry is also being disrupted, causing problems for companies around the world.

  • Tim Cook tweeted that “we’re doing all we can for our teams there and will be supporting local humanitarian efforts.”

The tech industry naturally looks for digital solutions. For a humanitarian disaster of global scale, it’s not clear that will always provide a fix. Yet tech’s wealth, power and reach can help fight misinformation, connect the displaced with resources and shine a light on abuses. There may not be an app for peacemaking, but there’s certainly an appetite for it.

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