Bay Area tech army steps up for Ukraine

Firms, workers use ‘keyboard instead of an AK-47’

Ukraine’s cyber army wants you, Silicon Valley.

The embattled country is enlisting a global tech army to fight Russian cyber attacks and propaganda — and even hack Russian websites. At the same time, while Bay Area tech workers in Ukraine are risking their lives, that country is pushing the Bay Area’s biggest tech companies to do more to counter Russia’s manipulation of social media.

Ukraine’s call for tech workers to help fight Russian cyberattacks and propaganda — as well as Russian civilians also taking part in the cyber war — makes this a different kind of war. This is not a TV screen war, it’s an interactive, computer screen war. And Silicon Valley is right in the middle of it.

“This is going to be different,” said Jen Miller-Osborn of Palo Alto Networks’ Unit 42 threat intelligence team in a Monday morning briefing. “These hacktivist groups becoming involved in this campaign… This isn’t something we’ve really seen in the past, especially not at this scale,” Miller-Osborn said in a webinar for cybersecurity professionals.

Ukraine recruited tech workers Feb. 26 when Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s vice prime minister, declared on Twitter, “We are creating an IT army. We need digital talents.” Tech workers with Bay Area ties responded right away.

Dima Maleev, an engineering manager at a financial tech company based in San Francisco, told The Examiner he went home to Ukraine to visit family and the war broke out. He plunged into helping the Ukraine effort online, became a leader of the cyber war effort, and says he is having the best vacation he could imagine by helping his country.

“I feel so blessed to be here, in my country at this moment. I can’t imagine me, sitting in the peaceful Pleasanton, California, reading newspapers about barbarian Russian force,” he posted on LinkedIn.

Tech work is very different right now in Ukraine. Kseniia Lider, a freelance chatbot developer, has been lugging her laptop down to a basement bomb shelter to work during air raids. “I managed to leave Kyiv with both of my cats on Friday by train, right before a curfew that lasted until Monday,” she wrote in a message to The Examiner. Now she is working in Lviv on chatbots — the artificial intelligence customer service programs that pop up on websites — to help connect doctors and patients.

Mary Pylyp, the Ukrainian sales lead for San Francisco’s Very Good Security, is also working in Lviv for Ukraine’s cyber effort. She appreciates global online support, but urges people watching from the outside to understand how dangerous the situation in the country is. “We are in a war zone, and some people are not getting that. This isn’t just social media. We don’t know how this will end.”

Other tech workers have recruited for the cyber army. Yaroslav Azhnyuk posted a call to join “fighters like us” on Facebook “if you want to help stop this war using your keyboard instead of an AK-47.”

Azhnyuk is the CEO of a PetCube, a startup that makes cameras for pet owners to keep an eye on their pets. Born in Ukraine, Azhnyuk lived in the Bay Area for six years and now lives in Ukraine again. He is hearing from “folks from Silicon Valley advocating fiercely within their companies to take a stand.”

But the biggest tech companies have waited too long, and are still not helping enough, a Ukraine government tech official told The Examiner.

“We need prompt action on our requests,” Anton Melnyk, an adviser to Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation, said in an email. Big companies including Google, Meta, Twitter, YouTube, Netflix and Amazon Web Services “have been moving very slowly,” he said.

Melnyk said Ukraine has asked Google, Meta, Twitter, YouTube, Amazon Web Services and other companies for help blocking Russian propaganda and Russian business. “We have sent official letters to all these companies on behalf of the president of Ukraine. But we would like more help from them,” said Melnyk, who has worked in the tech industry for European and U.S.companies for two decades.

Many have also criticized Patreon, the San Francisco fundraising platform company, for removing a Ukraine account raising money for the war effort. Patreon said in a blog post the fund was in part raising money for weapons, which is against its terms of service. But Ukraine tech workers told The Examiner the fund was closed with no forewarning, wiping out their fundraising efforts.

Facebook said last week it took down a network on Facebook targeting Ukraine, and is adding privacy and security measures to help people in Ukraine and Russia. Twitter paused ads in Ukraine and Russia so paid information wouldn’t infringe on public safety information, and also said it is taking steps to protect users. Google and YouTube said they are cutting the flow of ad revenue to Russian state media, CNN reported. And Amazon said it is helping with donations and employees’ visas if they are trying to leave Ukraine.

But Melnyk said the help comes after years of Ukraine trying to work more closely with big tech. “We have been offering all this to these companies for a long time.”

Melnyk said the biggest tech companies “need to be equal to Elon Musk,” who sent Ukraine Tesla’s Starlink satellite equipment, which can provide emergency internet service.

San Francisco CEO Roman Pedan of the real estate tech company Kasa Living, who was a child refugee of Ukraine, last weekend on LinkedIn offered free housing to families fleeing the war, and has given a family housing already. “Tech companies like ours have so many resources and innovative tools at our disposal, the least we can do is lend some of our time and talent to helping people find safety and security at a time like this.”

And big tech needs to take on that challenge more, said Maleev, the Bay Area tech worker who went home to Ukraine on vacation, and plunged into the cyber war effort. “Our government is right,” he told The Examiner about big tech companies temporarily cutting some services to Russia.

“The only way we can stop Putin is by showing how hard it is to live when the whole world is turning away from them,” he said.

Kseniia Lider, a freelance chatbot developer, has been working during the attacks in Ukraine, sometimes taking her laptop during air raids. (Kseniia Lider)

Kseniia Lider, a freelance chatbot developer, has been working during the attacks in Ukraine, sometimes taking her laptop during air raids. (Kseniia Lider)

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