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How Russia and Ukraine are finding new ways to use tech in the war | John Naughton

One of the few welcome surprises of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was the pace and obvious effectiveness of western governments’ imposition of typical sanctions on his nation. Briefly order, half of Russia’s $600bn overseas reserves held in western monetary establishments was instantly frozen. The nation was expelled from Swift, the huge messaging community that banks use to switch cash the world over. PayPal, Visa and Mastercard abruptly ceased to work in Russia. There was a right away ban on know-how transfers from the west. Then there was the sudden sanctioning of Putin-friendly oligarchs and those that service them in London, although Ben Elliot, the Tory co-chair and Quintessentially, the “concierge service” for the super-rich that he runs, appear to have been exempted from the strictures.

Trebles all spherical, then? Solely up to some extent: among the successes contain measures that in different contexts are deeply poisonous. Russian troops, for instance, have been nabbing high-end John Deere tractors in Ukraine and transport them again to Mom Russia. However when the fortunate beneficiaries of those wondrous machines try to start out them up, they uncover that John Deere has remotely “bricked” them – ie turned them into multi-ton paperweights. Which is why many western farmers detest John Deere. Having paid a fortune for his or her new tractors, they discover that they aren’t allowed to restore them themselves and any try to obtain bootleg software program to diagnose malfunctions could get them into authorized bother on intellectual-property and user-agreement grounds.

Equally, Ukraine has been utilizing one other poisonous know-how – facial recognition – to determine useless Russian troopers. Forbes journal reported in March that Mykhailo Fedorov, vice prime minister of Ukraine and minister of digital transformation, had confirmed on his Telegram channel that the nation was utilizing the software program to seek out the social media accounts of deceased Russian troopers, permitting authorities to contact their mates and households. The purpose, he mentioned, is to dispel misinformation surrounding the battle within the nation and, particularly, Russian claims that it’s only a particular operation with few losses. He didn’t specify which explicit know-how had been used, however his division later confirmed to Forbes that it was Clearview AI, which the American agency had supplied to the Ukrainian authorities freed from cost.

So what’s the issue? Solely that Clearview AI, an organization backed by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, amongst others, is fairly controversial again dwelling. In February, a bunch of US senators and representatives issued a name to federal companies to keep away from utilizing its “particularly dangerous” know-how, which “poses unique threats to Black communities, other communities of colour and immigrant communities”.

Thus know-how taketh away and know-how additionally giveth, because the Outdated Testomony may put it. However the tech that’s all of a sudden on everybody’s thoughts in relation to sanctions and Russia is blockchain, the software program that underpins cryptocurrencies corresponding to Bitcoin, Ethereum and the like. These currencies have been proliferating like wildfire for some years, and I way back misplaced rely of all of them, however in essence all of them have one factor in frequent: they’re decentralised cost programs that may allow anybody to switch worth to another person wherever. And since each a part of the method is closely encrypted and unsupervised by any authoritative establishment corresponding to a central financial institution, cryptocurrencies are clearly helpful for cash laundering – and for evading sanctions.

No matter else it’s, Russia appears to be a crypto-savvy nation. An official authorities estimate places native holdings of cryptocurrencies at $200bn, which is, at a guess, 12% of the world complete. One other survey, by a Singapore-based crypto cost gateway, concluded that 17 million Russians personal cryptocurrencies and that upwards of half one million pc programmers work within the trade. And Russia is at the moment third when it comes to Bitcoin network-mining exercise – apparently with authorities backing; Putin has known as for using surplus vitality for crypto mining.

On condition that, it might be shocking if the regime didn’t have a method for utilizing cryptocurrencies as a manner of dodging or undermining sanctions. This could be a viable choice for particular person Russian residents in search of to commerce with others outdoors the nation (and even to guard their financial savings at a time when the rouble has crashed). However for an financial system the scale of Russia, crypto transactions on the size required to offset the impression of sanctions can be a lot too giant to hide from western governments. For as soon as, there’s no technical repair for the issue that Putin has created for his nation… and for the world.

What I’ve been studying

Majestic meal
The Queen’s Contact is an unmissable 1996 New Yorker essay by Paul Theroux.

President takes the rostrum
Joe Biden’s speech to the annual White Home correspondents’ dinner. Just a few good jokes, too.

The transport information
A Yacht Proprietor’s Worst Nightmare is an attention-grabbing piece by Olga Khazan within the Atlantic on the difficult enterprise of seizing oligarchs’ yachts.

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