A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 27, 2023

How Ukraine's Cyberwar Tech Prowess Could Make It "the Next Israel"

Ukraine has developed so many creative - and highly effective software applications for everything from artillery targeting to logistics management - that its coders capabilities are leading to its being called the next Israel. JL 

Mark Sumner reports in Daily Kos:

Ukraine could be “the next Israel,”  attracting huge investments from technology companies looking to tap into local coding and technical prowess. Russia seems to be using a free, off-the-shelf app designed for hikers that’s been around for a decade. An app which is available to everyone right out of the Google app store. The Ukrainian version allows sharing of near real-time data all along the front line, so that targets moving out of range for one group can be picked up by the next, and has been key to helping Ukrainian forces hold their positions in western Bakhmut. The app used by front-line soldiers is just one of a number cranked out by Ukrainian military and government teams since the war began.

The makers of AlpineQuest have provided the following response concerning the use of their application by Russian forces.

On the 25th of April 2023, it came to our attention that our flagship application "AlpineQuest Explorer" is used in the on-going Ukraine-Russia war.

We want to make it clear that we are not involved in any way in this dramatic conflict. We are not in contact, nor provide support or information to any belligerents. The application can be purchased on the Play Store or on our own website, both of which are no more accessible from Russia since March, 2022, following international sanctions.

We are aware that some unofficial versions are distributed on illegal websites, and are unfortunately not able to either remove them or track their diffusion and misuse. As an application aimed to work in remote areas, outside network coverage, users input and store their own data on their own device. We do not host it nor have access to it.

AlpineQuest is a recreational application, this is its sole purpose.

The Psyberia Team.

In an interview with Interfax-Ukraine, General Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander of Ukrainian forces along the eastern front, warned that Russia had a new secret weapon. It’s not a new artillery system or thermobaric bomb. It’s not a new drone. It’s a software app. Using this app, Russian forces are able to enter the location of Ukrainian resources, identifying troops, equipment, or supply caches. This location can then be shared with other Russian forces in the area.

With the shared coordinates, those closest to the identified target are able to coordinate their attacks. A drone operator in one platoon may spot a group of Ukrainian soldiers and pass that info to a second platoon better positioned to go after the target with artillery, or with another drone equipped with a bomb. Syrskyi worries that, using this system, Russia has located not just equipment, but routes along which Ukrainian forces move, places where soldiers are known to congregate, and have even been able to tag Ukrainian units by their mission.

The use may make it seem that this is a custom-made tool, created and maintained by Russia’s vaunted army of hackers. But what Russia actually seems to be using is a free, off-the-shelf application designed for hikers that’s been around for a decade. An app which is available to everyone right out of the Google app store. It’s just one of several apps that are becoming ever more important in the war.

If the functionality that Russia is drawing from the Alpine Quest tool sounds familiar, that’s because Ukraine already has something similar designed for just this purpose, built in-house by Ukrainian developers. The Ukrainian version allows sharing of near real-time data all along the front line, so that targets moving out of range for one group can be picked up by the next, and has been reportedly key to helping Ukrainian forces hold their positions in western Bakhmut.

Mykola, 50, the deputy commander of a Ukrainian volunteer unit, checks a tablet monitoring  flying objects in real-time as volunteers remain on alert for air-raid sirens at their base in the suburb of Kyiv on February 27, 2023. - Colonel "Smak" and his Ukrainian volunteer unit of 80 civilian volunteers take turns day and night keeping watch for incoming threats: Iranian-made "Shahed" explosive drones launched by the Russians. Since October, the unit - whose machine gun dates back to the 1920s - has shot down three such drones. A dozen of these units, attached to the territorial defence, cover the sky of the Capital city of Ukraine. (Photo by YASUYOSHI CHIBA / AFP) (Photo by YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images)
Commander of a Ukrainian volunteer unit coordinating a response to reports of Russian drones.

The app used by front-line soldiers—an expansion of the app GIS Arta—is just one of a number cranked out by Ukrainian military and government teams since the war began. They’ve also built a multi-purpose app named “Diia” (which translates as “Action”) which can be used for everything from acting as a driver’s license to signaling the Ukrainian equivalent of 911. It also includes reporting the location of Russian drones. That app is currently installed on over 460,000 phones in Ukraine and has assisted in shooting down Iranian-made Shahed drones before they reached their targets.

Ukrainian coders have built special apps that help the armed forces manage their ever more complicated logistical trains. Forward units can use this app to request supplies or report broken equipment.

There’s an app that warns people when there is an air raid alert in their area, checks their location, and provides the quickest route to the nearest shelter. For civilians close to the front, there’s an app that helps them locate and coordinate with volunteers working to help them evacuate the area. There’s an app named Eppo (an acronym for electronic air defense in Ukrainian) that lets every Ukrainian assist in protecting their nation by reporting Russian drone sightings. A similar app allows for tagging any video or image to note the appearance of Russian troops or other equipment.

All of this has been so quickly assembled that there has already been talk that, after the war, Ukraine could be “the next Israel,” in terms of being a nation that attracts huge investments from technology companies looking to tap into local coding and technical prowess.

Screen capture from AlpineQuest Off-Road Explorer, which is reportedly used by Russian forces

Russia has also developed a number of apps. That includes one potentially very clever use of smartphone technology in the form of an app that registers the sound of artillery being fired, then uses the timing from Russian soldiers around the area to triangulate and pinpoint the origin of the sound, giving them the location of the Ukrainian gun. It seems very unlikely that this could provide accurate coordinates in an area of varied terrain, with multiple guns being fired and echos pounding back from buildings and hills … but it’s not impossible to work that out with some good filtering and comparison of waveforms.

So far, the Russian software to find artillery through sound doesn’t seem to have generated a cluster of Ukrainian artillery being taken out, but it’s still a good example of taking advantage of just how incredible the technology held in an ordinary smartphone really is.

Three decades ago, when I was working for a company that was highly dependent on a fleet of large, heavy equipment, we invested in special hardware that would allow us to track some of that equipment across the workday. Installing the hardware on each piece of equipment costs around $40,000, and the special software and infrastructure to support its use cost still more, but when you’re operating a fleet of massive $5 million trucks, $20 million shovels, and $100 million draglines, you kind of need to know what they’re up to. Especially when they’re spread out across work sites (mines, we’re talking about mines) that can easily encompass a hundred square kilometers.

Being able to “see” what each of these vehicles was doing allowed trucks to be rerouted when the queue at one shovel became too long, or dozers to be sent out to repair the way when data showed that the path had become too difficult. In a way, it was similar to the kind of issues that the Ukrainian military works with when it's trying to get equipment and parts where they’re needed.

The cost of installing and maintaining the system made it difficult to justify in many locations, or for it to be mounted on less expensive pieces of hardware, but when it made sense, it really paid off well.

Then, about 15 years ago, I was hit by the realization that the $40K boxes we were installing had a very specific set of hardware: a GPS system, communications, a data display, and a means for the operator to signal what they were doing or warn of an issue. It turned out that we had another box available that could do that and more–the average smartphone.

By that time, the coding tools developed for smartphone apps had improved enough that I was able to write a tool that could replace the multi-million dollar system that ran on top of that old custom hardware with a simple, lightweight app. Almost overnight, we were able to track nearly everything–every truck, every dozer, even the light boxes used to illuminate the working areas after sunset. You could even use the sensors in that phone to figure out exactly how rough every meter of roadway might be. Add a small interface, and now you knew what everyone at the mine was doing at all times … earning me a lot of hate from the guys driving those trucks and dozers.

The average smartphone, even a cheap one, is an extraordinary device. Such a raft of sensors–still camera, video camera, GPS, accelerometer, gyroscope, microphone, magnetometer–all that and more is in almost any phone you can purchase. And it can communicate with Cellular, WiFi, Bluetooth, and often several other protocols. Some can even make limited use of satellite communications.

For the same reasons, it’s not unusual that Russia should be using a piece of commercial software in their mix. Think about the things that almost every piece of software you own now promises. Secure communication. Data encryption from end to end. Ease of use. Flexibility. Russia doesn’t have to build those things, because they’re already done.

It would be great if the makers of Alpine Quest would put in place restrictions that would limit Russia’s ability to integrate their software into locating and attacking Ukrainian positions. However, if they did, Russia would likely just move to one of many alternatives. It is not hard to find applications that allow you to locate something on a map, tag that location in some way, and share the information with “friends.” That’s all Russia really needs here. They could practically militarize Pinterest.

A Ukrainian soldier, mother of a five-year-old boy, uses a smartphone near Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine on May 13, 2022. - More than six million refugees have fled Ukraine since Russia's invasion began on February 24, 2022, the UN refugee agency says. A total of 6,029,705 people had fled Ukraine as of May 11, with Poland hosting the largest number. Women and children represent 90 percent of the refugees. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP) (Photo by YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images)
Ukrainian soldier stationed near Kupyansk uses her smartphone for the most important function–chatting with her 5-year-old son.

If need be, Russia could likely slap the necessary tool together themselves. I did something similar, and that was better than a decade ago with much less powerful phones and much cruder tools.

But Alpine Quest is really nice. Great maps. Good tools. Terrific capabilities. It’s no wonder it’s maintained a strong user base for over a decade.I do have to wonder, though … is Russia getting by with just the free version, or do Russian commanders pop for the €10 version?

It’s little wonder there are so many stories of soldiers being saved when their smartphone deflected a bullet. Because that phone is vital equipment. They need it as much as their weapon or helmet. Also, it can call home. It can maintain connections to people who are many kilometers away, but never far away from the minds of those engaged at the front. That may be the most vital function of all.


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