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From a virtual walkie-talkie to offline maps: The apps that Ukrainians have downloaded since war began

According to research firm Apptopia, last week saw a program that sends airstrike alerts top the download charts in the besieged country

Conflicto Rusia - Ucrania
A man looks at his cellphone in an underground passageway on February 25 in Kyiv, Ukraine.Diego Herrera (Europa Press)

While Ukraine was last week calling on Russia to end its bombing of civilians, the country’s citizens were seeking innovative ways to protect themselves. According to research firm Apptopia, last week the most-downloaded cellphone app was a program that sends alerts before airstrikes hit a certain area. Its creators say that they designed it to “prevent injuries and avoid absolutely unnecessary deaths in situations where people can’t hear the sirens.”

The population of the ex-Soviet republic has also turned to encrypted messaging services and apps that offer maps even when there is no internet connection. “Apps surging to the top of the charts in Ukraine are Walkie-Talkie apps, VoIP apps, offline navigation apps, VPN apps, Radio comms apps,” tweeted Adam Blacker, the spokesperson for AppTopia, after the Russian invasion. Some of those alternatives allow for offline communication through radio signals or Bluetooth. “These are apps we normally see trending during natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes,” Blacker added.

Signal encrypts group chats and calls from end to end
Cybersecurity company Kaspersky.

Communication apps were last week leading the rankings of both the Play Store and the App Store, according to Apptopia’s data. Apps including Signal, Telegram, Zello Walkie Talkie and Bridgefy were holding the highest slots. Signal stands out for its end-to-end encryption to maintain privacy. Only users can read the messages that they send to each other, and no outside parties can listen to their calls. “Unlike Telegram, whose end-to-end encryption only works in the famous secret chats for two users, Signal also encrypts group chats and calls from end to end,” explains the cybersecurity company Kaspersky.

While Telegram doesn’t offer end-to-end encryption as an automatic feature, it does allow users to manually enable a secret encrypted chat function. It is accessed by opening a contact’s profile, selecting the button “More” and choosing the option to start a secret chat. That opens a conversation in which a user can choose for messages to be erased after a chosen period of time, from a second to a week. If one of the parties takes a screenshot, a notice appears in the chat. Although the application allows users to have many secret conversations with the same person, it does not offer a secrecy function for group chats.

Some Ukrainians are using Zello Walkie Talkie, an app that allows for private end-to-end encrypted conversations. To speak with other users, the caller simply presses a button on the screen. Zello Walkie Talkie does, however, require an internet connection. Therein lies the strength of Bridgefy, an application that allows users without internet access to send encrypted messages to recipients up to 100 meters away.

Bridgefy’s creators argue that it is “ideal for use during trips or in natural disasters, rural communities, festivals or stadiums.” It has also been used during protests in countries including Hong Kong, India, Zimbabwe and the United States. But the application has not been free from controversy in recent years. In 2020, a team of researchers at the University of London criticized its use in protests because, in theory, it allowed users to be tracked and for other parties to access their messages.

Radio signals and offline maps

The most-downloaded apps in Ukraine right now also include those used for radio transmission – including Radios Ukraine and Simple Radio – and location tracking. Maps.me allows users to consult detailed maps and use the GPS navigator without an internet connection. Flightradar, which shows information about air traffic, has also joined the list of the most-installed applications. Since February 24, the day that Russian president Vladimir Putin gave the order to invade Ukraine, the country’s airspace has been closed to commercial flights.

Starlink also appears among the Ukrainian app stores’ most popular downloads. Last Saturday, Ukraine’s vice prime minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, took to Twitter to ask tech entrepreneur Elon Musk for Starlink satellite internet service stations. “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route,” the Tesla founder answered later that day. The technology is meant to allow Ukrainians to stay connected despite the internet outages that are making life even more difficult in the country.

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