How Amazon put the ‘Ukrainian government in a box’ and saved its economy from Russia

Since February, Amazon has been playing Santa Claus in Ukraine, delivering planeloads of goods including blankets, hygiene kits, diapers, food and toys to the war-torn nation and refugees in Poland and other parts of Europe.

But in the long run, what’s more important to Ukrainians than the freebies coming in is what’s coming out: massive amounts of government, tax, banking, and property data vulnerable to destruction and abuse if Russian invaders take it in their hands. hands.

Since Russia launched its invasion on February 24, Amazon has been working closely with the Ukrainian government to offload essential data and transport it out of the country on suitcase-sized solid-state computer storage drives called Snowball Edge, and then pipe the data to the Amazon cloud. computer system

“This is the most technologically advanced war in human history,” said Mykhailo Federov, Ukraine’s 31-year-old deputy prime minister and minister of digital transformation, referring not just to weapons, but also to data. “AWS leadership made a decision that saved the Ukrainian government and economy.”

Amazon’s effort in Ukraine, including transferring data via “snowballs,” as they’re called, has cost around $75 million so far. Federov, speaking at a tech conference in Las Vegas earlier this month, called it “invaluable.”

The data, 10 million gigabytes so far, represents a “critical information infrastructure.” This is essential for the functioning of the economy, the tax system, the banks and the government in general”, he said. The data also includes property records whose custody can help prevent theft of Ukrainian homes, businesses and land.

Throughout history, invaders have “come in and staged fake referendums and divvied up land among their cronies,” said Liam Maxwell, head of government transformation at Amazon Web Services, the company’s highly profitable cloud computing arm. company. “Those kinds of things have been going on since William the Conqueror.”

The Odessa Journal newspaper reported in June that residents of occupied Mariupol whose homes had been destroyed were being relocated to the homes of citizens who had fled the area, and were being forced to locate those who left and put pressure on them to leave. They will “cooperate” in some way. with the Russians.

Maxwell, who is based in London, had been working with Ukraine for years when it became clear in January 2022 that Russia was planning to attack the country.

At the time, Ukrainian law required most government data and certain private data to be hosted on servers in Ukraine. In February, parliament changed that law to allow the transfer of information.

On February 24, the day of the invasion, Maxwell met Ukrainian Ambassador Vadym Prystaiko for lunch at the Ukrainian embassy in London.

They drew up a list of the most essential data with pencil and paper: the population register; land and property ownership records; tax payment records; bank records; education records; anti-corruption databases and more. The project involved 27 Ukrainian ministries, 18 Ukrainian universities, the country’s largest remote learning K-12 school serving hundreds of thousands of displaced children, and dozens of other private sector companies, including the largest private financial institution in Ukraine, PrivatBank.

Snowball units, in their sturdy gray containers, flew from Dublin to Krakow in Poland. The Ukrainians then “slid these devices across the border into the Ukraine,” Maxwell said.

After the data downloads, much of the information is sent to the cloud over secure networks and the Snowballs, loaded with up to 80 terabytes of encrypted data each, are sent back to Amazon. For good reason, Maxwell won’t say where, but says that “it’s a tense moment around the baggage carousel. Here is government in a box, literally.”

Once it’s in the cloud and distributed around the world, everyone breathes easier. “You can’t remove the cloud with a cruise missile,” Maxwell said.

The mission required speed, organization, and deep technical skill. Maxwell said that Federov, “a man in a hurry”, ticked all the boxes.

Still, Amazon spent time training Ukrainians on how the AWS system works. That free training has been extended to refugees in Poland and elsewhere in Europe. There’s an upside for Amazon, aside from recognition for their efforts: Maxwell says the program is equipping those refugees with crucial tech skills and, in the process, expanding AWS’s talent base.

Amazon did not have to worry about its relationship with Russia in the Snowball project. He doesn’t have one. “We had nothing to put out there,” Maxwell said. “We had never invested there. It’s a matter of principles”.

Since the project began, other countries have told Amazon they are interested in cloud backups of government data outside the country. Maxwell did not say which countries, but noted a strong interest from East Asia.

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