Private companies track the war in Ukraine in real time

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Even before Russian military forces crossed into Ukraine three months ago, private companies were using data from satellites and other technology to closely monitor events on the ground. Newshour Special Correspondent Mike Cerre explores the ongoing efforts to track the war in Ukraine in real time, digitally.

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  • William Brangham:

    Even before Russian military forces crossed into Ukraine three months ago, private companies were using data from satellites and other technology to closely monitor to our events on the ground.

    "NewsHour" special correspondent Mike Cerre explores the ongoing efforts to track the war in Ukraine in real time digitally.

  • Mike Cerre:

    From the haunting images of the 40 mile Russian military convoy that converged on Ukraine's capital in February, to the real-time tracking of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees, combining cell phone GPS technology with social media, all part of a new wave of consumer surveillance technology put to a mission-critical test in Ukraine.

    Payam Banazadeh, Founder & CEO, Capella Space: The ability to monitor anywhere in the world day, night, all weather and all conditions is just not something that commercial had access to, whereas government has always had access to this technology.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Six years ago, Payam Banazadeh was a Stanford student only theorizing about how to monitor the world 24/7.

  • Payam Banazadeh:

    We can do global coverage (INAUDIBLE) time, night and day, all weather, with satellites looking at everywhere on Earth.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Now his Capella Space start-up has seven satellites orbiting in space, equipped with compact X-ray imaging cameras, they can take surveillance pictures day and night, even through clouds and bad weather, like Ukraine in winter.

    This X-ray image of Russian assault vehicles assembling on the Ukrainian border the night of February 23 signaled the actual invasion before it was officially announced.

  • Payam Banazadeh:

    Our third-party analysts use this imagery to then get tips to look at Google Maps and see essentially a traffic jam of military vehicles getting ready to move in.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Once the exclusive domain of the military and intelligence communities, tech start-ups like Capella Space and Planet Labs, also in San Francisco, launched a new cottage industry of smaller, cheaper satellites, some the size of a loaf of bread, to do commercial satellite surveillance for clients ranging from financial institutions to farmers.

  • Robbie Schingler, Planet Labs:

    And that's exactly what we're seeing right now as the events unfold in Ukraine, is a bunch of new actors that are making their data available to decision-makers to really understand situational awareness, how things have been transgressing in a relatively short period of time.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Robbie Schingler's Planet Labs, like Capella Space, got some of their initial contract funding from the Defense Innovation Unit, the Defense Department's start-up in the Silicon Valley for fast-tracking mission-critical technologies faster than the government's traditional procurement system, like it needed during the 2017 North Korean missile crisis.

  • James Crawford, Orbital Insight:

    If you go back 20 years, they were literally parachuting film from space, and the Defense Department would pick it up somewhere in Kansas and develop the film and look at that.

    Now we have satellites literally looking at the whole Earth every day.

  • Mike Cerre:

    James Crawford started Orbital Insight, one of the first commercial companies using artificial intelligence and machine learning for analyzing the millions of images from these new satellite sources to determine what the surveillance industry calls patterns of light, in Ukraine's case, the civilian exodus, which Orbital Insight's Jens Tellefsen started tracking soon after the invasion in late February.

  • Jens Tellefsen, Orbital Insight:

    So we did see many of the large eastern cities in Ukraine started to evacuate. And we can start now to see the routes that they're taking.

    So this is a time loop that you're seeing here. So, starting on the 25th, going into 26th, et cetera, people were starting to primarily drive on city roads heading west.

  • Mike Cerre:

    The greatest refugee crisis since World War II can now be monitored on an hourly basis by analysts using GPS signals from Ukrainian cell phones and cars on the move.

    The data is cross-referenced with a variety of satellite imagery, like these images at key border crossings, and digital representations of street activity in besieged cities like Kharkiv and marijuana.

  • Jens Tellefsen:

    The city of Mariupol in Southeastern Ukraine, and this is the foot traffic that we literally see day to day. And this is an extreme example. This obviously were…

  • Mike Cerre:

    From 600,000 to zero.

  • Jens Tellefsen:

    Down to almost zero, yes. And so people were evacuating on a massive scale.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Orbital Insight's CEO, Kevin O'Brien, came from the financial sector, which initially use satellite surveillance for tracking leading economic indicators, like shopping center parking lot activity for predicting retail sales.

  • Kevin O’Brien, CEO, Orbital Insight:

    Whereas a lot of the defense folks are keeping an eye on the columns of tanks and military equipment, but what about the impact into the broader economy, transportation infrastructure, energy infrastructure, agriculture, as well as the very large humanitarian aspect of this, and then the potential broader impact into the economy in other parts of Europe as well?

  • Payam Banazadeh:

    We knew that there are these moments where something bad is happening, and it requires attention.

    It could be flooding. It could be a conflict. And at those moments is when you need eyes in the sky the most.

  • Mike Cerre:

    As for privacy concerns, GPS signals from cell phones and cars are largely anonymous. And the commercial imagery isn't detailed enough to identify license plates or people's faces, like the larger and more powerful surveillance satellites, governments have access to.

  • Jeffery Lewis, Middlebury Institute:

    The technology companies are fundamentally interested in patterns. And so while you could imagine a dedicated, targeted effort to get to the bottom of a single person, these are companies that are interested in making money. And that's not really their concern.

    It's that aggregate pattern that interests them and rewards them financially, not the behavior of any one individual.

  • Mike Cerre:

    Dr. Jeffery Lewis with Middlebury's Institute for International Studies in Monterey, California, is more interested in the transparency benefits of public access to the once-classified and prohibitively expensive satellite surveillance.

  • Jeffery Lewis:

    The Iraq War is why I'm in this business.

    When I was a graduate student, the prewar debate was playing out. And my experience was that, in civil society, we had nothing to say. We all thought that the claims being made by the U.S. intelligence community were suspicious, that they seemed improbable. But we didn't really have any basis to scrutinize those claims or understand the situation for ourselves.

  • Robbie Schingler:

    Many people are taking a look at this as facts in order to then reconstruct what did happen over time and if there were any violations of international law that could be used in the future in order to make sure that you can hold people accountable.

  • Mike Cerre:

    In addition to identifying mass grave sites for alleged human rights violations, surveillance targets include energy reserves and economic patterns of life in Russia to see how effective the economic sanctions really are.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Mike Cerre in San Francisco.

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