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Ukraine’s thriving tech firms join cyber resistance against Russia

  • March 16, 2022
  • , Nikkei Asia , 4:28 a.m.
  • English Press

NAOKI WATANABE, Nikkei staff writer


TOKYO — Ukrainian startup MacPaw used to be known for publishing apps that clean and speed up Mac computers.


These days, the outfit is busy designing a program that blocks Russian surveillance.


“Every action makes a huge difference, and this is why we need tech specialists and companies to take action, too,” MacPaw CEO and founder Oleksandr Kosovan told Nikkei, as Ukraine defends itself against the invasion by larger neighbor Russia.


Kosovan has chosen to remain at MacPaw’s headquarters in Kyiv. Others in his team have relocated outside the country or moved to the company’s offices in Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in western Ukraine.


MacPaw technicians have developed software that checks whether an app is exposed to data breaches by Russia.


The team also has published software that reduces battery consumption by iPhones, something critical for refugees who are not near an electrical source.


Another tool MacPaw has made available to Ukrainians are free VPNs that can be used to receive and share information on the ground.


Reface, the developer of an app for sharing and manipulating photos of faces, has joined the war effort as well. Of the company’s 191 employees, 27 are in Kyiv.


“That was the choice of workers to stay in the capital and help physically,” said Dima Shvets, CEO and co-founder of Reface. The employees who remain in Ukraine’s capital are involved in a host of activities, he said.


A MacPaw employee does work through a smartphone in a bomb shelter. (Photo courtesy of MacPaw)

“People who are staying in Kyiv are continuing to work for Reface projects, or volunteering, or helping online, or joining territory defense forces or technically helping the IT army of Ukraine,” Shvets said, referring to an amateur army of hackers.


Reface leverages its 200 million users to send push notifications calling on those from Russia to protest their leader, President Vladimir Putin. The app also shares videos of the conflict in Ukraine to inspire antiwar sentiment among Russians.


Reface developers modified the app so that users can easily create original videos that show conditions on the ground in Ukraine, along with videos soliciting donations. About 150,000 people have clicked to donate through the app, the company said.


Grammarly, the Ukrainian-founded developer of the eponymous writing assistant, has added a feature suggesting links — such as those for donations — when a user writes about Ukraine. In addition, the company offers its services for free to the press.


When Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, it lacked an industrial base. In its place, the country nurtured a booming software industry that employs about 300,000 information technology engineers.


Ukraine hosted over 5,000 tech companies prior to the Russian invasion, government statistics show. Exports of computer services totaled $6.8 billion last year, according to the IT Ukraine Association, more than doubling from 2018.


Earnings by the tech sector were equivalent to more than 4% of Ukraine’s gross domestic product. In recent years, contract software development has been a growing business.


Ukrainian employees for Japanese tech firm i3Design wear hoodies emblazoned with the company logo and their names in Japanese characters. (Photo courtesy of i3Design)

Between 85,000 and 100,000 people in Ukraine worked in export-heavy services, most of which involve tech services, said Katie Gove, a senior director and analyst at the researcher Gartner.


GlobalLogic, the U.S.-based software developer purchased by Hitachi last year, has five locations in Ukraine employing about 7,200 technicians. Silicon Valley companies increasingly have struck deals with GlobalLogic.


Some client companies want to assist Ukrainian tech employees with whom they share working relationships. Japan’s i3Design delegates artificial intelligence and blockchain software development to 15 engineers the company has hired locally in Ukraine.


“There are employees who move back and forth between bomb shelters and their homes, and communication often gets lost when they go underground,” i3Design President Yoichiro Shiba said. “It’ll depend on the situation, but I’d also like to consider welcoming them to Japan at some point.”

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