Credit: Google maps
At 3:15 AM local time, Jeffrey Lewis, an open source intelligence (OSINT) expert and professor at Middlebury Institute, saw a traffic jam in Belgorod, Russia, using the traffic layer of Google Maps. “Someone’s on the move,” he tweeted.
“I think we were the first people to see the invasion,” Lewis told Motherboard. “And we saw it in a traffic app.”
Hours before, Vladimir Putin had announced a “special military operation” in Donbas, a region in Eastern Ukraine he had declared independent earlier in the week, 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. The traffic jam slowly extended to the border, where it then disappeared.
Lewis said this wasn’t as simple as them loading up Google Maps and seeing a traffic jam, assuming it meant an invasion was occurring. They were also using optical and radar satellite imagery taken days before. On Tuesday, they had a radar picture taken by Capella Space, a company that provides satellite imagery, showing Russian armored and heavy vehicles lined up in columns ready to move. “We all looked at the picture, and was like, oh shit, it’s coming,” he said. As they were monitoring this unit, they noticed the traffic jam. “So it’s the prior work of knowing that there’s a giant Russian armored unit sitting right there that allowed us to say, like, oh, I know what that traffic jam is, they’re getting on the road.”Google Maps live traffic data works by incorporating location and speed information from Android phones. This led many commenters responding to his tweets to assume the Russian soldiers left their phones on—which would be horrendous cybersecurity hygiene—and Google was picking that up. But Lewis said that almost certainly was not the case, and the traffic data Google was showing was ordinary people who couldn’t get on the road because of Russian military movement.
“We have developed incredibly data rich definitions of what normal patterns of life look like,” Lewis said, “And any deviation is immediately caught.”
Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Lewis’s observations or how the company was capturing live traffic data tipping off the exact location of a forthcoming military invasion.“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 Ukranians.”As of this writing, Google Maps is showing a “road closure” along the northeast portion of E40, the ring road around Kharkiv.