In Ukraine, despite sweeping bans, it is still possible to install and use Russian navigation applications like 2-GIS, Yandex Maps and Navigator by using a VPN. We have reasonable grounds to believe that these applications are controlled by the government of the aggressor country, and that through these applications, the Russian government receives online information about the situation on Ukrainian roads, passage of military equipment, and even entrances and exits to any building.
And they do not need to hire an army of spies, as this information is collected and transmitted by thousands of Ukrainian drivers. Around 15%, or every seventh driver in Ukraine, uses Russian mobile navigators, according to a study by the Association of Responsible Carriers (ARC). The ARC has repeatedly appealed to the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine (NSDC), the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the Security Service of Ukraine to block their operation in the territory of Ukraine, however, apart from letters addressed to mobile app stores, the relevant structures have not yet taken any meaningful action.
Russian car navigators 2-GIS and Yandex Maps and Navigator, are still available for download and are actively used via VPN in Ukraine despite the sanctions and the total expulsion of Russian business from country. The applications receive and can transmit a lot of data about Ukrainian cities, including critical infrastructure facilities, military movements, or places mass gathering. A driver may not even know that he has become a spy – it is enough to drive past a place of interest with the navigator turned on to pass on the data. According to the ARC, Russian applications are most actively installed on the phones of motorists in Kharkiv, Odesa an Dnipro, accounting for from 42% to 58% of such users.
How do these apps belong to the Russian government?
The 2-GIS website claims that it continues to work in Kyiv
Both Yandex and 2GIS are listed in the Register of Information Dissemination Organizers and in accordance with the Russian Federal Law On Information must not only store information about users and their registration data, but also upon request transfer all received data to the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation. This means that any information “seen” by the navigator can be studied by the military of the aggressor country after a few minutes. This is especially dangerous when Russian navigators are used by volunteers traveling to the front lines, military personnel, or critical infrastructure workers. The issue of such intelligence data gathering has become even more critical in connection with the Russian strikes using kamikaze drones which rely on the same satellite positioning systems and follow a predetermined route, just like car navigators.
What to do in such a situation?
The use of Russian navigators in Ukraine has become a matter of life and safety. Regular missile attacks and the use of kamikaze drones means that the enemy is constantly looking for new targets to attack. They are extremely interested in the busy roads and bridges, places where servicemen go to work, and where the chief engineer of a thermal power plant goes. Therefore, immediate stop in the use of Russian mobile spy applications is also a matter of personal security of every Ukrainian.
The ARC appealed to law enforcement agencies with a request to influence the situation and ban the work of Russian geospatial data aggregators in Ukraine. ARC also made its second appeal to the NSDC. However, there has been no reaction yet. At the end of September, the Ministry of Digital Transformation informed the ARC about its appeal to Google and Apple corporations to help solve the problem and ban these mobile applications. However, the situation has not changed – 2-GIS and Yandex Maps and Navigator still can be downloaded and used through VPN services. The reasons for the authorities’ lack of decisive action are both legal and purely technical. Therefore, in practice, the problem has not yet been solved. For example, Russian companies, even those already sanctioned, actively circumvent restrictions by involving intermediaries. Technically, despite blocking access to the relevant servers from Ukraine, VPN services help bypass the restrictions – and more than 15% of drivers in Ukraine do it, either knowingly or not.
The reason for such essentially suicidal attachment of our drivers to Russian navigator apps can only be explained by poor information and misunderstanding that a Russian Shaheed may be flying by their route on Yandex tomorrow.
Therefore, in addition to the government action, it is necessary to better inform drivers about the risks associated with the use of Russian navigators. Taxi and courier services can also facilitate this process. For example, Uklon taxi service does not provide access to Russian applications such as Yandex, 2GIS, CityGuide and Navitel when processing orders. Therefore, drivers cooperating with Uklon are compelled to familiarize themselves with alternative navigators to work in the Uklon Driver application.
However commendable, such responsible action on the part of businesses is not sufficient to fundamentally change the situation – a broad synergy of efforts from the state authorities and society is needed. Ukrainian drivers should understand the risk of using Russian navigators and remove them from their gadgets. If most consumers opt out of this software, it will minimize its harmful impact and strengthen the country’s security.
Read more on the topic
- How the Russian bookmaker 1XBet created a network to collect personal data of Ukrainians: MelBet, PointLoto, FanSport, BetWinner
- War criminals identified: identification data of scouts of the Russian 64th Motorized Rifle BrigadeВстановлено дані розвідників 64-ї ОМСБр ЗС РФ, яка скоїла воєнні злочини
- Interactive database of Russian units participating in the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. [UKR]