NATO official: Alliance needs to consider ‘a more structural cooperation’ with Microsoft, Google

“The work that companies like Microsoft and Google have been doing in Ukraine is really unique,” says David van Weel, NATO’s assistant secretary general for emerging security challenges, and the alliance should consider how they can cooperate during future conflicts.

Microsoft and Google’s cloud services have been involved in hosting Ukrainian government IT infrastructure in the face of Russian cyberattacks. Along with cybersecurity companies, they also have performed extensive threat intelligence work to identify campaigns targeting Ukraine.

“When the war broke out with a large cyber component in it, that support from the private sector was crucial in keeping defenses up,” van Weel told The Record during an interview at the Munich Security Conference in Germany. “We all have to realize that a large part of the infrastructure that we’re talking about is in private hands,” and that tech companies have some capabilities that nation-states can’t match.

“We need to think about how we get a more structural cooperation with these vital companies for cybersecurity,” van Weel said.

Both companies have delegations at the conference, as do many NATO member states and NATO headquarters staff from Brussels.

“It’s not like deals are being made here, or that communiques are being negotiated here. But the fact that all these important players are here, provides for an excellent opportunity to catch up and get up to speed on what’s happening in the world,” van Weel told The Record.

‘Large innovative angle to this war’

Van Weel said while in Munich he was attending roundtables and meetings on the semiconductor industry and “the critical technology that they provide,” as well as on cybersecurity, energy resilience and energy transition. The range of topics fall within what he described as “a rather broad portfolio, but there is a common denominator,” that being emerging security challenges.

These challenges have been highlighted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“Although it looks like a very conventional conflict, including trenches like in World War One — artillery fire, the use of tanks, aircraft, you name it — there is a large innovative angle to this war. And fortunately, it’s mostly coming out on the Ukrainian side,” he said.

Read more: War brought big spikes in cyberattacks on Ukraine, NATO allies, Google says

As an example, Van Weel said that Ukraine was using natural language processing tools to automatically translate intercepted Russian communications, particularly of Russian soldiers calling to their families at home, and using technology to contribute to the analysis of these conversations for intelligence purposes.

“By doing that in an automated way, you’re able to filter out information that is of interest, from a defensive point of view,” he explained.

Ukraine has also deployed facial recognition technology to “determine who the perpetrators of the war crimes in Bucha were,” added the NATO assistant secretary general.

“We’ve seen them [the Ukrainians] working with what we call an ‘Uber for artillery’ where they can basically pinpoint on the map where they need artillery fire, and then the system works out the best available system to actually provide that fire.”

This system has decreased the warning times for actually delivering that artillery fire down to 20 seconds. “It used to be 20 minutes,” said Van Weel.

Read more: Cyber companies’ aid to Ukraine is vital, report says, but the efforts also have limitations

He said he called the software used in Ukraine’s artillery strikes the ‘Uber for artillery’ because “in essence what that piece of software does is exactly the same as what Uber does, you point to a location where you want to be picked up and the system looks for the best available means to actually pick you up. So a lot of this technology is out there, but what we’re seeing now is that there is a use in the military for it.”

He also cited the use of drones, from “small ones that you can buy online up to Bayraktar drones provided by a Turkish company that have all made a difference in this war.”

“In ISR [Intelligence, Reconnaissance, Surveillance], the observation from space by companies like Planet and Maxar — that are commercially driven companies, but the data that they have is of such high quality that it actually provides a whole new angle to warfare. … So it’s very much a war of innovation, and we’re monitoring it very, very closely.”

Van Weel also described how map apps, particularly Google Maps, identified a traffic jam in Belarus on the morning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine — due to the movement of Russian armored vehicles — that showed how it was becoming possible to apply commercial technology in a military setting.

The trick “in this day and age” is not gathering the information, said Van Weel, but “filtering the information that is in abundance, and then validating within that large stack of information, the intelligence that you need. I think that’s what this war is now showing, that there’s so much information that the trick is — partly automated, partly human — how to make sense of that and make it useful.”

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Alexander Martin

Alexander Martin

is the UK Editor for Recorded Future News. He was previously a technology reporter for Sky News and is also a fellow at the European Cyber Conflict Research Initiative.