Big Tech Blackouts During Times of Conflict

Google and Apple are reportedly restricting map information amid the Israel-Hamas War, rekindling questions of tech’s role in international affairs.

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth, Senior Editor

October 25, 2023

At a Glance

  • Israel Defense Forces asked for live traffic data to be disabled in advance of expected ground operations in Gaza.
  • Google temporarily disabled live traffic updates previously in Ukraine per request in response to Russia's invasion efforts.
  • Elon Musk previously terminated Ukraine's access to Starlink, hindering the use of drones versus Russian forces.

In anticipation of looming ground-based military action in Gaza, Apple and Google agreed to comply with a request from the Israel Defense Forces to limit certain data from their respective mapping apps.

According to reports, the tech giants will withhold live traffic information in Israel and in Gaza as it might provide insight into troop movements when the IDF advances. This is not the first time Big Tech has played a role in a period of conflict, armed or otherwise, either withholding or offering services -- sometimes at the request of a state entity and sometimes at its own discretion.

The interconnectivity of the world, with the vast multitude of devices gathering and sharing data, has become a staple of commerce, social interaction, governance, and warfare. Remote control drones might rely on data fed to them to find their targets. Opposing forces can glean details from publicly available apps that could tip them off to forthcoming armed action. This brings up questions about Big Tech’s part in the grand scheme of things, whether they want to participate or not.  

The intense, tragic human loss in the Israel-Hamas War, which seems poised to escalate even more, has brought outcries from many opposing voices, all determined to be heard. It seems inevitable that Big Tech, with their collective connections and grip on daily life, would get drawn into yet another major conflict.

Related:The Ongoing Cyber Siege of Ukraine: From Russia with No Love

Statecraft, sociopolitical debates, and geopolitics might not be debates major tech companies want to become part of, but the ubiquitous presence of their services and resources can make it hard to disengage from current events.

Some might say that is a cost of operating on the international stage, conducting business across borders and among entities and peoples who might come into dire conflict with each other.

Google adhered to a previous request to temporarily disable live traffic data on Google Maps in Ukraine as the shooting war with Russian forces continued there. The concern behind the request was live traffic data might inform Russian military where the local populous and defenders moved to and congregated.

Earlier this year, Elon Musk restricted Ukraine’s access to Starlink, hindering the country’s use of drones that relied on the satellite-based internet service. Musk said the restriction stemmed from the service being used outside of its contracted agreements. He also expressed a belief his actions would avert World War III.

Even without open, armed conflict, presence of big tech in world affairs is noticeable. AWS, for example, regularly sees its share of protesters at public conferences, usually to decry the contracted services the company offers to various state entities such as law enforcement and the military.

Related:Cloud, Data, and Political Protests Mark the 2022 AWS Summit

Given their size and need to continue growth, Big Tech must weigh its choices carefully, and in theory humanly, in order to conduct business within a state actor’s jurisdiction or with governments directly. Just a couple of years ago, major cloud providers fought in court for a chance to provide updated cloud services to the Department of Defense. Make no mistake, even as private-sector entities, Big Tech companies parlay regularly with nation states and, in this podcast, it opens the door for questions about their influence over matters that have very human faces.

About the Author(s)

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth

Senior Editor

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth covers tech policy, including ethics, privacy, legislation, and risk; fintech; code strategy; and cloud & edge computing for InformationWeek. He has been a journalist for more than 25 years, reporting on business and technology first in New Jersey, then covering the New York tech startup community, and later as a freelancer for such outlets as TheStreet, Investopedia, and Street Fight. Follow him on Twitter: @jpruth.

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