It was 3:15 a.m. in Belgorod, Russia — much too early for a traffic jam, thought Jeffrey Lewis, who was watching the traffic pileup on Google Maps. Lewis, a professor specializing in arms control and nonproliferation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif., was monitoring Google Maps with a research team of students he mentors as part of a project to analyze images taken from space. He and his team realized what was happening: a Russian armored unit was moving toward the border with Ukraine.
By combining Google Maps traffic information with a radar image that showed troops, Lewis and his team realized an invasion was underway hours before the news became public and from thousands of miles away in California. Russia officially announced its assault on Ukraine on Thursday morning, which President Biden called “unprovoked and unjustified.”
“In the old days, we would have relied on a reporter to show us what was happening on the ground,” Lewis said. “And today, you can open Google Maps and see people fleeing Kyiv.”
Lewis’s sleuthing helps demonstrate how technology — and specifically Google Maps — is making it so people even far away can see in real-time what’s happening, all the way down to the street level. What billions of people around the world can see from the palm of their hands reflects that people on the ground, in the midst of troop movements, are also constantly connected to their devices. And in some cases, those devices are becoming a tool for civilians.
On Thursday, the Indian Embassy in Ukraine tweeted an advisory to its citizens and students in the country: It suggested that if they could hear air sirens, they should search for nearby bomb shelters on Google Maps.
Google Maps, as a market leader, in particular, has faced scrutiny for the way it shapes people’s perceptions of the world, drawing the borders of countries and regions differently depending on where a user is and disputes around those territories, including the representation of the border between Ukraine and Russia. In Russia, the Crimean Peninsula is represented with a hard-line border as Russian-controlled, whereas Ukrainians and others see a dotted-line border.
Last year, Google Maps faced criticism from researchers for its blurry images of Gaza.
Google Maps and other map applications track cellphone locations in real-time, more typically to indicate a traffic jam or a car crash. But over the years, the companies have built-in other capabilities, including emergency alerts and those for natural disasters to help users avoid dangers.
Google has also used “active shooter” alerts, as well as “SOS Alerts” to “make emergency information more accessible during a crisis,” the company said.
Traffic data on Google Maps on Thursday night, hours after the initial invasion of Ukraine, showed road closures near Kharkiv. It showed stalled traffic on the road closures out of the capital city, Kyiv, as well as information about train schedules, or stalled service, at subway stations in the city.
Google declined to comment on the use of Maps to track activities related to the invasion of Ukraine.
The company did not confirm whether its Maps app showed any SOS alerts in Ukraine, or whether it shows a list of bomb shelters in the country. But it does give information about subway stations, some of which are being used as shelters.
In Monterey, Lewis and his team had seen a radar image from earth observation company Capella Space, which appeared to show an armed Russian vehicle unit lined up near Belgorod. The team started looking at traffic data on Google Maps and was surprised to see a traffic jam so long before rush hour.
That told the researchers that civilians in their cars were probably being stopped at roadblocks, while military vehicles passed.
“We have so much data that shows us what a normal pattern of life looks like, that when we see deviations we can tell something is happening on the ground,” he said.
According @googlemaps, there is a “traffic jam” at 3:15 in the morning on the road from Belgorod, Russia to the Ukrainian border. It starts *exactly* where we saw a Russian formation of armor and IFV/APCs show up yesterday.
Someone’s on the move. pic.twitter.com/BYyc5YZsWL
— Dr. Jeffrey Lewis (@ArmsControlWonk) February 24, 2022
Google Maps analyzes phone movements to estimate road traffic. Lewis dismissed the idea that the traffic information was actually coming from Russian soldiers who had their smartphones with them. The Russian soldiers were moving, so that would have shown clear traffic, he said. Instead, the traffic jam was likely to have been generated from the phones of stopped civilians, he surmised.
The ubiquity of high-quality maps in people’s pockets, coupled with social media where anyone can stream videos or photos of what’s happening around them, has given civilians insight into what is happening on the ground in a way that only governments had before, said Steve Blank, a founding faculty member at Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation.
But there are ways to cut off Internet and cell service, he said. And what the high-tech world still cannot do is definitively say what military will do next.
“What you can still hide is intent,” he said.