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The tragic conflict that is currently ravaging Ukraine has precipitated one of the biggest refugee crises in Europe since World War II. At present, an estimated 4.3 million people have fled their homes in Ukrainian towns and cities and escaped across the borders of neighboring countries. This mass exodus of civilians escaping war and the reality of a twenty-first century conflict in a developed region have brought into sharp focus the indispensable role of modern mobile technology during times of crisis.

Mobile technology has for many years now been an indispensable piece of equipment in times of conflict. In 2011 when the Syrian civil war broke out, vast swathes of land in the country possessed uninterrupted network coverage. Phones were of paramount importance. Armed fighters used their phones to communicate with each other, messaging back and forth critical intelligence about their opponents’ locations and movements. Phones equipped with up-to-date cameras also became vital in transmitting to the outside world gruesome pictures that laid bare the realities of warfare. For example, few could forget the horrifying footage of the aftermath of chemical weapons being used on civilians. Disturbing images of this nature that were filmed by citizen journalists and published on the websites of leading international news outlets led to sanctions being levied by the United States against senior Syrian officials in 2017.

More recently, chat and encrypted messaging apps (EMAs) have been vital tools for communication for civilians caught in the middle of violent conflicts and for those living under authoritarian regimes. For those caught up in conflicts, these apps have allowed the receipt of crucial information relating to public safety and up-to-date news about the locations of invading forces. For individuals living in authoritarian countries encrypted messaging has facilitated an avenue of communication that avoids the prying eyes of spyware, which offers such governments a trove of information enabling the arrest and imprisonment of political opponents.

EMAs are effectively messaging services that offer end-to-end encryption to prevent anyone except the sender and recipient from monitoring the communications. Information sent through these apps is converted into a jumble of random characters and symbols that render the original message completely secure with a special key to unlock it. Standard short message service (SMS) messages are generally unencrypted, which leaves users at the mercy of hacking software that can be deployed to read any communications sent via this medium.

According to Inga Kristina Trauthig, a senior research fellow with the Propaganda Research Lab at the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, EMAs have proved vital in the conflict in Ukraine. Viber and Telegram have been particularly useful: these two EMAs have the highest penetration rates at 98% and 86% respectively. Their high usage can be explained largely by how the Ukrainian Ministry of Health relied on these apps to relay critical health communications during the COVID-19 pandemic. Trauthig explains how these messaging services were repurposed in her Lawfare blog: “Following the Russian escalation, these established lines of communication were repurposed. The primary Telegram channel that was dedicated to reliable coronavirus news in Ukraine is run by a private company but works closely with the government and is verified by Telegram.” Trauthig cites the example of Ukraine to illustrate how a nonpolitical communication channel can shift “to become an important tool of citizen communication during wartime.”

Apps that are unable to send or receive messages but can be used to encrypt communications have also found a market in authoritarian countries. Android app Nahoft – meaning “hidden” in Farsi – has become increasingly popular in Iran among citizens who have mobilized themselves away from government surveillance that limits freedom of speech and cracks down on political opposition. Nahoft works completely offline and allows users to encrypt messages into a random string of Farsi words or include hidden messages in photographs. Users can then send these scrambled communications using ordinary messaging apps that are vulnerable to state monitoring. Nahoft even has a setting that destroys all its stored user data by simply entering a code. The free app was designed by pro-human rights organization United for Iran in response to the November 2019 protests that swept across the Islamic republic and saw hundreds of demonstrators killed by security forces. In a bid to quell the uprising, the Iranian government implemented an unprecedented week-long internet blackout which prevented civilians from coordinating protests and stopped information leaving the country. In the event of future internet blackouts, Nahoft can still be used to communicate because once users have a coded message, it can be spoken to another person over the phone who can use their app to unscramble it.

The above are just a handful of examples of the increasing importance of encrypted messaging apps and services during times of conflict. Furthermore, these examples also serve as an argument against expanded tech regulation by the state. Recent years have seen numerous commentators and politicians argue for the break-up so-called “big tech” companies such as Google’s parent company Alphabet and Facebook. These critics have additionally advocated for beefed-up regulations for large tech companies. Earlier this year the UK government launched its “No Place to Hide” campaign, which calls for Facebook’s owner Meta to abandon plans for end-to-end encryption on its Messenger and Instagram apps. Proponents of the campaign argue that such technology will make it harder for law enforcement to monitor encrypted messaging apps for child abuse images and will weaken online child safeguarding. However, the proposals have been criticized by industry experts who have highlighted the possibility of the door being opened to heightened government surveillance, as well as to exploitation by hackers looking to steal sensitive financial data from devices. In March, the Chartered Institute for IT, BCS, condemned the plans as misguided, arguing they will do little to achieve the government’s desired outcome. Referencing the importance of encrypted messaging in conflict zones like Ukraine, the director of policy at the BCS, Bill Mitchell, said any moves to weaken technology that is fundamentally important to ordinary citizens’ security would be misguided: “There should be more exploration of the alternatives before we go down the road of rolling back E2EE, especially in this time of war, when secure messaging is a vital tool for truth-telling across the world.”

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