From virtual walkie-talkie to offline maps: the apps Ukrainians have downloaded since the start of the war | science and technology

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

People in the former Soviet republic have also turned to encrypted messaging services and apps that offer maps even when there is no internet connection. “Apps that top the rankings in Ukraine are walkie-talkie apps, VoIP apps, offline navigation apps, VPN apps, radio communication apps,” spokesperson Adam Blacker tweeted. of AppTopia, after the Russian invasion. Some of these alternatives allow offline communication via radio signals or Bluetooth. “These are apps that we normally see trending during natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes,” Blacker added.

Signal encrypts end-to-end group chats and calls

Cybersecurity company Kaspersky.

Communication apps topped the Play Store and App Store charts last week, according to data from Apptopia. Apps such as Signal, Telegram, Zello Walkie Talkie and Bridgefy held the highest placements. Signal stands out for its end-to-end encryption to maintain privacy. Only users can read the messages they send to each other, and no third parties can listen to their calls. “Unlike Telegram, whose end-to-end encryption only works in so-called secret two-user chats, Signal also encrypts group chats and calls end-to-end,” says cybersecurity firm Kaspersky.

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

Some Ukrainians use Zello Walkie Talkie, an app that allows end-to-end private encrypted conversations. To talk with other users, the caller simply presses a button on the screen. The Zello walkie-talkie, however, requires 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.

The makers of Bridgefy claim it’s “ideal for use when traveling or in natural disasters, rural communities, festivals or stadiums”. It has also been used in protests in countries like Hong Kong, India, Zimbabwe and the United States. But the app hasn’t been free of controversy in recent years. In 2020, a team of researchers from the University of London criticized its use in protests because, in theory, it allowed users to be tracked and other parties to access their posts.

Radio signals and offline maps

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

Starlink is also among the most popular downloads from Ukrainian app stores. Last Saturday, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov took to Twitter to ask tech entrepreneur Elon Musk about Starlink satellite internet service stations. “The Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals on the way,” the Tesla founder replied later that day. The technology is meant to keep Ukrainians connected despite internet blackouts that are making life even more difficult in the country.

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