Google has temporarily disabled tools that provide live information about traffic conditions in Ukraine, the company confirmed to VICE World News, following reports that people around the world were using the service to track the movements of troops and civilians during the Russian invasion.
Google Maps’ live traffic data works by incorporating location and speed information from smartphones with the app, then using it to show in real-time how dense traffic conditions are in certain places, or how busy those areas are overall. When Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an attack on Ukraine last week, however, some spectators realised the feature could also be used to provide open-source insights regarding the whereabouts of military operations.
“I think we were the first people to see the invasion. And we saw it in a traffic app,” Jeffrey Lewis, an open-source intelligence expert and professor at Middlebury Institute, told Motherboard, after he noticed an unusual traffic jam developing around the Russian border town of Belgorod on Thursday morning.
This was just hours after Putin declared a “special military operation” in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas, foreshadowing a potential invasion. But the traffic buildup Lewis was seeing on Google Maps was across the border from a different region of Ukraine, north of Kharkiv, and slowly extended to the border before it disappeared.
“We have developed incredibly data-rich definitions of what normal patterns of life look like,” Lewis explained. “And any deviation is immediately caught.”
It is unclear when exactly Google disabled the Maps live traffic data. The company declined to comment on what it was specifically that prompted the move, or whether it had ever done something similar for conflicts in the past. Google said only that it had taken the action for the safety of local Ukrainian communities following consultations with sources including regional authorities.
Experts had previously flagged the potential for Google’s data to be exploited by invading Russian forces, who could theoretically use the Maps traffic function to monitor Ukrainian troops and notice when they’re on the move.
“I think big data companies often don’t want to face squarely how useful their data can be,” Lewis said. “I mean, it’s cool when we do it, right? It’s maybe less cool if the Russians were able to do something similar to, you know, spotting an offensive from Ukrainians.”
Google’s announcement came just a day after the Ukrainian government called on “all road organisations, territorial communities, [and] local authorities to immediately start dismantling road signs nearby.”
“Dismantling road signs on all roads of the country. Priority #1 - indicators, names of settlements. Collected signs are handed over to local authorities and roadmen,” Ukravtodor, the government agency responsible for Ukraine’s national road system, wrote in a Facebook post.
“The enemy has a pathetic connection, they don’t orientate the area. Let’s help them go straight to hell.”
Included in the announcement was a doctored image of a road sign pointing in three different directions and saying, in three different ways: “Fuck you”—a message directed at the Russian invaders.
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