Encrypted messaging technology, with soldiers texting on apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram, has found itself at the center of the Russia-Ukraine war. Those fighting for control of narratives about the war use lies and incomplete truths to boost morale on one side, break morale on the other, or intercept information critical to military strategy .
In March of 2022, Ukraine’s UN ambassador read the last texts of a Russian soldier to his mother in an effort to demonstrate the cruel realities of war , which prompts the question, “how did he gain access to that soldier’s private messages to his mom? ”
It’s not hard to set up spy software. A quick google can provide information on ways to implement spy technology like mSpy . In a war, casual information such as a soldier texting his wife, “we’re heading out tomorrow,” if intercepted, could mean life and death. Post-smartphones, war increasingly revolves around information, and implicates messaging apps, who collect data, as masters of information which could significantly change the dynamics of the conflict.
This manifests in two ethical questions:
- to what extent should tech companies share information from their platforms, allow disinformation, or change what users are seeing as a way to turn tides?
- to what extent should soldiers be allowed to text?
Telegram and encryption
Shortly after Russia invaded, Zelensky used Telegram to urge his fellow countrymen to fight, and Telegram became vital to both sides. Many people called Telegram an “encrypted messaging App,” but that is not entirely true. “The platform does not have end-to-end encryption by default. End-to-end encryption means that a platform cannot know the content of users’ messages… you can opt into end-to-end encryption but only for one-to-one chats and not for group messages. ” Thus it is very likely that messaging content was known and used for tactical purposes, in addition to manipulation of information to boost or squash morale .
It seems terribly cruel and unenforceable to ban a young man from attempting to contact his family, and ineffective to not allow companies to communicate on smartphones. Regardless, the fact that smartphones are playing such a critical role drives the question of their role in war.
Texting in the military
Outside of Russia and Ukraine, militaries around the world are questioning the role of texting in their administration and ranks. In 2006, the British army embraced SMS texting for soldiers through the secure portal Army Net . The rest of the world came to similar conclusions around that time: texting was a valid way for soldiers to communicate within and outside of the military, but since then those conclusions have come under some scrutiny. In the 10th Mountain Division General of the United States Army wrote a letter imploring the army “to prevent soldiers from being led by text,” because he felt that texting did not foster an appropriate culture .
What is the risk of soldiers texting? What is the benefit of SMS? And if a soldier texts on an app, how does that implicate the company collecting the data?
An overarching question this provokes is – what is that ideal intersection of endpoint, communications tech, and freedom of communications? ‘Endpoint’ means smartphones, IOT devices, et cetera and ‘communications’ tech means encrypted messaging, voice, short voice, and other command and control. How do tech developers combine these technologies to minimize thwarting and manipulation?