Tech giants hold huge sway in matters of war, life and death. That should concern us all | Keir Giles

The revelations that Ukrainian naval operations were blocked by a lack of support from Elon Musk’s Starlink system cast light on to his complex relationship with Russia and Ukraine.

But it is an area that deserves more light still, for Starlink’s parent, SpaceX, is far from the only technology company playing a vital role in Ukraine’s resistance against the Russian invasion. Household names such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft and others have also been essential to the defence of Ukraine.

The key role of tech companies – and the people working for and with them – in this war raises new questions about the status of private industry and civilians in wartime. Private companies are playing major roles in cyber, telecommunications, national resilience and more – but, just like SpaceX, none of them have an absolute duty to do so. Simply put, companies are providing capabilities that are vital to Ukraine’s national survival because they choose to, not because they are beholden to any of the states involved in the conflict.

Support from Amazon and its cloud services was crucial in evacuating Ukrainian government data before the invasion. Information technology companies such as Microsoft and ESET have been crucial to the cyber-protection of Ukrainian government and civilian networks against Russian attacks.

Google is providing both support services for Ukrainian government functions and protection for government websites and embassies worldwide. All of these companies – and a mass of smaller private sector and civil society organisations – have provided their services either pro bono or are funded by western governments backing Ukraine.

But the reason why none of these have hit the headlines in the same way as Starlink is not just because their support is provided quietly in the background. It’s also because, unlike Starlink, all of these companies have made a clear choice as to which side they are on. They concluded that their own values, and their duty to their other customers, mean that they must back Ukraine. According to the Microsoft president, Brad Smith, the process of getting involved in geopolitics was “unusual and even uncomfortable, but became indispensable for the protection of our customers”.

There was an emergency request from government authorities to activate Starlink all the way to Sevastopol.

The obvious intent being to sink most of the Russian fleet at anchor.

If I had agreed to their request, then SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and…

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 7, 2023

The case of Starlink highlights the vulnerabilities that come with dependence on this kind of goodwill. Twitter and Starlink under Musk are the primary case study for major tech platforms that hold power without accountability. Their distinctive ownership structure means that Musk’s personal decisions can easily cause lives to be saved or lost. Musk tweeted that he did not allow the Ukrainian raid on Russian warships for fear of causing “a major act of war” – which will have come as little comfort to Ukrainians fighting for their lives against major acts of war committed daily by Russia.

And the abortive naval raid on Sevastopol isn’t the first time Ukraine has depended on Starlink and been let down. Geofencing meant that advancing Ukrainian forces discovered in October 2022 that Starlink ceased to function when they entered newly liberated areas, depriving them of a critical communications capability at a vulnerable moment.

And in February 2023, Starlink placed further restrictions on usage, saying the system should not be used for offensive purposes such as providing communications for controlling drones carrying out attacks on Russian troops. This too was presented by Starlink as a response to an unanticipated use of the service – not just for communications but for specifically enabling offensive operations.

In all these cases, there are vital lessons for any other conflict where a state might be dependent on the goodwill of private industry: a critical warfighting capability can be hostage to a terms-of-service violation.

What is more, in a future, more ambiguous conflict, private companies’ loyalties could cross borders and they could find themselves offering services to both sides. In addition, their own commercial exposure could be a determining factor. Unlike Twitter and SpaceX, decision-makers in most corporations answer to boards and shareholders, which implies that in a future conflict involving, for instance, China, potential loss of business as a result of backing the other side could be decisive in determining a major technology company’s loyalties.

This has direct implications for the defence of western societies. The capabilities of private sector security firms are an integral part of western cyber-defence capability, and in particular the digital security of critical infrastructure has largely been entrusted to private industry. But the example of Ukraine has thrown open the question of where that industry’s loyalty may lie.

Starlink is an extreme example, both because of its unique prominence in Ukraine’s publicly visible warfighting effort and because of its distinctive ownership and decision-making structure. But the issues it highlights need to be addressed across the board. Corporations including SpaceX have independently jumped in to help Ukraine, largely because they felt it was the right thing to do. Governments must make sure it’s an easy decision for them to decide to jump in on the right side in future conflicts too.


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