Since February, Amazon has been playing Santa Claus in Ukraine, delivering planeloads of goods including blankets, sanitary kits, diapers, groceries and toys for the war-torn nation and refugees in Poland and other parts of Europe.
But in the long run, Ukrainians care more about the gifts than what goes in: vast amounts of government, tax, banking, and property data that are vulnerable to destruction and misuse should Russian invaders get their hands on them.
Since the day Russia launched its invasion on December 2, Amazon has been working closely with the Ukrainian government to download critical data and ship it out of the country in suitcase-sized solid-state computing storage units called the Snowball Edge, and then upload the data to the cloud Manage Amazon’s computing system.
“This is the most technologically advanced war in human history,” said Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s 31-year-old Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Digital Transformation, referring not only to weapons but also to data. “AWS leadership made a decision that saved the Ukrainian government and economy.”
Amazon has so far invested $75 million in its efforts in Ukraine, including data transfer via the “snowballs,” as they’re known. Fedorov, speaking at a tech conference in Las Vegas earlier this month, called it “priceless.”
The data, 10 million gigabytes to date, constitutes “critical information infrastructure. This is core to the functioning of the economy, tax system, banks and government as a whole,” he said. The data also includes property records, which keeping them safe can help prevent theft of Ukrainian homes, businesses and land.
Throughout history, invaders “have come in and staged a fake referendum and handed the land over to their cronies,” said Liam Maxwell, head of government transformation at Amazon Web Services (AWS), the company’s highly profitable cloud computing arm. “It’s been happening since William the Conqueror.”
The Odessa Journal newspaper reported last June that residents of occupied Mariupol whose homes had been destroyed were taken to the homes of citizens who had fled the area and forced to locate those who had left the area , and pressuring them to “cooperate” in any way. with the Russians.
Maxwell, who lives in London, had been working with Ukraine for years when it became clear in January 2022 that Russia was planning an attack on the country.
At the time, Ukrainian law required most government data and certain private data to be stored on servers in Ukraine. In February, Parliament amended this law to allow for the transmission of information.
Wed Feb. On the day of the invasion, February 24, Maxwell met for lunch with the Ukrainian Ambassador Vadym Prystaiko at the Embassy of Ukraine in London.
They sketched out a list of the most important data with pen and paper: the population register; land and property ownership records; records of tax payments; bank records; education register; Anti-Corruption Databases and more. The project involved 27 Ukrainian ministries, 18 Ukrainian universities, the country’s largest K-12 correspondence school, which serves hundreds of thousands of displaced children, and dozens of other private sector companies, including Ukraine’s largest private financial institution, PrivatBank.
The Snowball units, in their sturdy gray containers, were flown from Dublin to Kraków, Poland. Then “the Ukrainians hurled these devices across the border into Ukraine,” Maxwell said.
Once the data is downloaded, much of the information is sent to the cloud via secure networks, and the snowballs, each loaded with up to 80 terabytes of encrypted data, are sent back to Amazon. For good reason, Maxwell won’t say where, but says, “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 breathed a sigh of relief. “You can’t take out the cloud with a cruise missile,” Maxwell said.
The mission required speed, organization and deep technical skills. Maxwell said Fedorov, “a man in a hurry,” ticked all the boxes.
Despite this, Amazon spent time training Ukrainians on how the AWS system works. This free training has been extended to refugees in Poland and elsewhere in Europe. In addition to being recognized for its efforts, Amazon also has an upside: Maxwell notes that the program equips these refugees with critical technical skills — while expanding AWS’s talent base in the process.
Amazon didn’t have to worry about its relationship with Russia with the Snowball project. It has none. “We didn’t have anything to put there,” Maxwell said. “We have never invested there. It’s a principle.”
Since the project began, other countries have told Amazon that they are interested in cloud backups of government data outside of the country. Maxwell wouldn’t say which countries, but he did notice a lot of interest from East Asia.