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The role of Google Maps in the Russian invasion over Ukraine

In a turn of events that the world hoped would never come, war has returned to Europe: February 24 saw the beginning of a terrible and unprovoked invasion of an independent country by Putin’s Russia. In amongst the many horrors to have unfolded since there has been one particularly fascinating development for those of us in the geospatial community—the role played by Google Maps.

Of course, maps and geographic data have been critical elements of warfare for centuries, while Google Maps, as a tool, is used by billions of people around the world each day. Not until now have the two collided quite so dramatically.

Google Maps and its difficult balancing act

Before the conflict even started, Google found itself in an uncomfortable position. Towards the end of 2021, the Kremlin—a longstanding critic of American tech platforms and the freedom inherent in social media—stepped up its campaign against Big Tech. Google were issued with a $100 million fine for failing to bow to Moscow’s demands to remove ‘banned content’.

Russia had been aggravated by Google’s resistance to censorship, as well as its supposed support of Kremlin critics—including hosting a voting tool app created by Putin’s rival Alexei Navalny, which Russia claimed amounted to electoral interference. (It is a common Kremlin tactic to draw a false equivalence between providing services to Putin’s political opponents and interfering with elections.)

Google’s main concession to these objections was to mark Crimea as Russian territory for those viewing Google Maps in Russia while leaving it as ‘neutral’ for those in Ukraine.

The role of Google Maps in the Russian invasion over Ukraine

Since the beginning of the war, many big multinational corporations (including Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Apple, and Meta) have withdrawn operations and services in Russia, and on March 10, Google announced that it would follow suit, pausing all paid services and monetization features in the country, including Play Store and YouTube.

That hasn’t stopped people using its free services, both within Russia and outside it, for strategic purposes—with four of the most interesting uses detailed here.

On Maneuvers

In the early hours of February 24, 2022, researchers in Vermont noticed that user-generated information on Google Maps showed unexpected traffic behavior at the Russian-Ukrainian border. Specifically, a long traffic jam near Belgorod—in the same place that a large Russian military convoy had been located with radar just a day before. The traffic jam indicated a line of many vehicles on the roads—characteristic behavior for a military unit readying for an attack.

User data indicated that the traffic jam then began to move south—in other words, towards Ukraine—and all this before the invasion had been officially declared.

The role of Google Maps in the Russian invasion over Ukraine

Twitter Traffic Jam on Ukrainian Border Russian Invasion Feb 24 2022

After some time, Google temporarily turned off global access to traffic data in Ukraine, a decision taken with the safety of Ukrainian citizens in mind. After all, if the American university team were able to discern Russian troop movement, it is all but certain that Russian military forces could have used the same method to predict the movements of Ukrainian civilians, which was of particular concern when considering the evacuation of refugees.

Strategic Planning

On February 25, news outlet Kyiv Independent alerted Ukrainian citizens, through a tweet, that ‘some signs have been painted to guide Russian bombers’ and ‘to check for and obscure any markings on the roofs’.

Fears that the Russian military was indeed weaponizing Google Maps appeared to come true when rumors began to spread that the secret service had employed digital markers as well as physical, using the tool to indicate strategic targets. (If changes are made either by a highly-rated guide or by multiple accounts, Google Maps are likely to be updated accordingly.)

One particular story was that the word ‘Edemus’ was used to mark places where rockets and bombs should be targeted—hospitals, schools, kindergartens and other important locations—apparently as some sort of grim joke, given that Edemus is a Ukrainian funeral home company.

Ukraine’s intelligence service did eventually debunk these rumours, but not before Google had responded to a huge campaign from users urging them to look into the issue. According to the company, any new user-generated content added within the borders of the war’s protagonists since the conflict started is being removed, ‘out of an abundance of caution’.

Information campaign by Google Maps

One of the most resourceful uses for Google maps has been attempting to disseminate information to Russian citizens who are largely kept in the dark by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. On February 28, a tweet from account @Konrad03249040 was posted, which read:

Get involved: find a random shop/cafe/restaurant in Russia in big city on google maps and write in the review what’s really happening in Ukraine. Please spread the idea.

The post was later retweeted by hacktivist collective ‘Anonymous’, (to over 270,000 followers) and subsequently shared on a subreddit, receiving hundreds of upvotes, with plenty of people across the globe acting on the advice, spamming Google and TripAdvisor with fake reviews.

The role of Google Maps in the Russian invasion over Ukraine

Google Maps Comments Anti Russia Invasion over Ukraine

Google acted quickly to prevent the site being used in this way—although this in itself was controversial—by temporarily blocking the publication of new reviews (or other content) on Google Maps, for locations in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

‘Due to a recent increase in contributed content on Google Maps related to the war in Ukraine, we’ve put additional protections in place to monitor and prevent content that violates our policies for Maps,’ a spokesperson said.

Military secrets

Given Russia’s past accusations, it’s perhaps no surprise that Google themselves were accused of acting in a partisan manner. On April 18, a Ukrainian twitter account claiming to represent the armed forces shared a series of images showing Russian military equipment and strategic military locations. The images were accompanied by a message that implied Google had ‘unblurred’ the satellite pictures of these locations.

It’s true that many military installations in Russia are indeed viewable on Google Maps, but Google’s response is that it did not make any alterations to the way satellite images are censored.

Google Maps Blurring Russian Millitary bases

In fact, Google does blur the maps of some sensitive areas (a French air force base, for example) but not others (Area 51 in Nevada is fully visible!).

Of course, although it makes a nice story, the Ukrainian military has access to intelligence and satellite imagery far beyond anything publicly available on Google, and not subject to any modifications.

Through the fog of war

Maps and other geographical data have always been key to warfare and military strategy, as has technology, and satellite imagery itself is not new. What is new, however, is the democratization of that information.

The wide availability of technology, and more specifically, satellite data, means that the act of gathering (and disseminating) information on active conflicts is no longer restricted to those who possess specialized military equipment, and therefore does not remain exclusively the domain of governments and their militaries. Citizens around the world are able to see, in near-real-time, the maneuvers of military vehicles and personnel, as well as using that technology to communicate with each other.

Where this technology goes next—and what tech giants like Google do to control it—is unknown. What we do know is that in an era of fake news and misinformation from authoritarian regimes, open-access geospatial data perhaps presents one of the best ways to see clearly through the fog of war—and yet, on the other hand, presents still more propaganda for us to decode.

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Mapping in the deep: Why is 80% ocean floor still unexplored?

Credit: Ocean Mapping Group

In the next decade, Elon Musk plans to send humans to Mars. Considering that NASA launched its first global Mars mapping mission in 1996, space enthusiasts have had a long time to prepare for this breakthrough. And yet, it will take another decade before we have a ‘complete picture’ of our own planet. After all, 80% of the Earth’s ocean floor is yet to be mapped using modern mapping techniques.

The Mt. Everest is so famous for being, well big, that even primary school kids are cognizant of its existence. But how many people do you think are aware that almost a quarter of our planet is made up of an underwater mountain range called the Mid-Ocean Ridge? That we didn’t even enter this subsurface mountain system until 1972 – three years after Neil Armstrong left the first human footprint on the moon? That the majestic Everest is 4,000 feet shorter than a mountain hidden beneath the waves of the Pacific?

“We know more about the surface of the Moon and about Mars than we do about the deep sea floor, despite the fact that we have yet to extract a gram of food, a breath of oxygen or a drop of water from those bodies,” Canadian oceanographer Paul Snelgrove has famously said. Indeed, given that the oceans drive our weather patterns, regulate temperatures, and ultimately support all living organisms on our planet, this kind of neglect simply doesn’t make sense.

“If you compare NASA’s annual budget to explore the heavens, that one-year budget would fund NOAA’s budget to explore the oceans for 1,600 years,” claims Robert Ballard, a deep-sea explorer best known for his 1985 discovery of the Titanic. “Most of the southern hemisphere is unexplored. We had more exploration ships down there during Captain Cook’s time than now.”

Turning the tide

That might just change with a new sea-mapping mission which was initiated last year. The General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO), a non-profit group affiliated with the United Nations, has chalked out a plan to develop a global baseline bathymetric database by 2030. This comprehensive map of the bottom of the ocean will be created at 100m – a tremendous improvement over the current ocean floor maps which have a resolution of 5km.

Team Seabed 2030

With the current technology, the Seabed 2030 project will take nearly 1,000 ship years (1,000 years for a single ship, 10 years for 100 ships, and so on). There will be other challenges to consider as well – half of the world’s oceans are deeper than 3,200m with parts permanently covered in ice. So, creating a global baseline bathymetric database by 2030 will not only require constant improvements in echo sounding techniques, specialized autonomous underwater vehicles will also need to be developed to explore these ice-infested areas.

“Available commercial and custom developed drones, gliders equipped with multi-beam sonar, fleets of low maintenance autonomous surface or underwater vehicles and unmanned mapping barges, steered by satellite communication and an ultra-narrow beam deepwater multi-beam, could all be used for different situations,” GEBCO notes in a statement.

The Nippon Foundation has already granted GEBCO $18.5 million for this project, but that’s only the beginning. Dr. Larry Mayer, Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping/Joint Hydrographic Center, University of New Hampshire, believes that mapping the entire world ocean with multi-beam echo sounders will cost almost $3 billion, given that it would take a single ship costing $45,000 per day more than 65,000 days to complete the job.

The final frontier

The investment seems almost negligible when you consider the implications of this much-needed exploration. Our oceans are believed to contain the key to some of the most pressing challenges of human existence – climate change, food production, new sources of energy to substitute the fast-depleting fossil fuels, new biomedicines to be developed, et al.

Amitai Etzioni, professor of international relations at George Washington University, offers another interesting proposition: “In order to freely explore the oceans’ deepest reaches, we must learn to construct submersibles that can handle extreme pressure, as much as 18,000 pounds per square inch. The resulting materials and techniques might help us design and construct homes that can withstand being buried in debris after an earthquake or a mudslide.”

USS San Francisco

A greater understanding of this wonderful resource will also ensure that tragedies like the USS San Francisco – where a nuclear submarine crashed into an unmapped underwater mountain in 2005 – are not repeated. And if an airplane like the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 were to go missing, rescuers and geophysical surveyors will not have to conduct a blind hunt for want of seafloor topography knowledge. In fact, it was the search for the whereabouts of the missing MH370 that led Geoscience Australia to map a remote underwater area of around 120,000 sq km in the Indian Ocean, leading to an unprecedented understanding of the geology of the deep sea and the complex processes that occur there.

Ballard sums it up as he says, “Why do we have programs to build habitation on Mars, and we have programs to look at colonizing the moon, but we do not have a program looking at how we colonize our own planet? Why are we not looking at moving out onto the sea?”

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