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The Army in a recent advisory has asked its personnel to be wary of ‘spiritual gurus’ and ‘babas’ on social media who can be Pakistani intelligence operatives using fake profiles.

Social media has added a new dimension to espionage. And, it is only a matter of time before enemy agents on social media have access to spyware like Pegasus that opens the door to sensitive information. The Army has even advised its officers holding critical posts to deactivate their Facebook accounts and not use WhatsApp for official communication.

Every year, 50,000 young people, between 17 and 21 years of age, join the Army. Most of them are computer-literate and possibly armed with smartphones – and each one can be a target for a Pakistani operative on social media.

In the last decade, there have been numerous cases of military personnel, including officers, being trapped by enemy agents on social media through traditional motivators like money, sex and faith.


Also read: Army wants officers to deactivate Facebook accounts, stay away from WhatsApp


Existing rules are inadequate

In the pre-internet and pre-social media era, intelligence operations of hostile countries required physical contact. Controlling access to military areas and monitoring of suspect organisations by counter-intelligence agencies were adequate to address such threats.

Provisions under the Constitution (through Article 33) and The Army Act (Section 21) governed social interactions and applied restrictions. Rule 19, The Army Rules, 1954, states: No person subject to the Army Act without the express sanction of the central government can “take official cognisance of, or assist or take any active part in, any society, institution or organisation, not recognised as part of the Armed Forces of the Union; unless it be of a recreational or religious nature in which case prior sanction of the superior officer shall be obtained”.

But in a digital age, these rules and provisions are no longer adequate. Identities can easily be masked on social media, allowing enemy agents to interact with soldiers without any physical contact.

Threat from Pakistan, China

Logically speaking, intelligence agencies of all countries should exploit social media for espionage. Dividends are proportionate to the technology available and the ingenuity of the resources deployed. The Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan has been a front-runner, using social media for both propaganda and espionage.

The Army has identified around 150 fake social media profiles of intelligence operatives who want to trap Indian soldiers. Some Pakistani agents have even created fake social media profiles using the names of senior Indian military officers to lure soldiers.

A few months ago, a Pakistani spy using the name ‘Sejal Kapoor’ on Facebook allegedly ‘honey-trapped’ 98 personnel of the defence forces and hacked into their computers. The spy, according to news reports, showed them videos and pictures through a malware that originated from West Asia. Among other things, classified details of the BrahMos missile programme were leaked to Pakistan.

China is a world leader in cyber-warfare technology. Little is known about its intelligence operations via social media and that itself shows the magnitude and complexity of the threat.


Also read: Army tells personnel to stay away from spiritual ‘babas’ as they could be Pakistani agents


Need a pragmatic policy

The easiest solution to this threat is either ban use of social media or install ‘anti-spy software’ in devices used by military personnel, as China has done.

But in a democracy, this is not desirable, and in any case, such a ban is impossible to enforce. Indian armed forces instead have adopted a pragmatic policy.

Use of social media is permitted, but with detailed guidelines in the form of dos and don’ts. Official computers only use secure intranet. On social media, defence personnel cannot disclose their rank, branch of service, unit or any such detail that can signal that the individual is a member of the armed forces. They are barred from disclosing any security-related information, which as per military law is anyway an offence.

Also, the use of social media and security-related issues are now a part of the training curriculum at military training establishments as well as in regular command guidance in units. Intelligence warfare units have started monitoring social media to identify enemy agents and issue warnings on a regular basis. Enemy agents are also exploited through deception. Strict disciplinary action is taken against defaulters.

A record of personal mobile phones and computers is maintained to monitor/flag any security breach. Further, the use of mobile phones is banned during mobilisation of troops and military operations.

Social media poses a serious threat to security. Educating soldiers about the threat and using information warfare units for counter-intelligence are effective only up to a point. A ‘compromised’ individual can reveal only what he knows unless he is exploited to access official computer systems and crucial documents. Therefore, there is an urgent need to focus more on keeping important military documents and official computer systems safe through state-of-the-art cyber-security technology.


Also read: The rise of Pegasus and why India should know the problem with hiring ‘internet mercenaries’


Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.

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7 Comments Share Your Views

7 COMMENTS

  1. The Army Act (Section 21) . Rule 19, The Army Rules, 1954.
    Then how is it that many of our officers including Generals belong to the RSS.

    • HOW DEEP DOES THIS ROT IN THE ARMY GO
      HOW MANY INDIAN ARMY OFFICERS ARE SECRETLY MEMBERS OF RSS????
      GEN VK SINGH FORMER COAS WAS MERELY THE THIN EDGE OF THE WEDGE
      In April 27 five retired Lieutenant-Generals, joined the BJP in the presence of the then Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman at the BJP headquarters .
      Two former Deputy Chiefs of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. J.B.S. Yadav and Lt. Gen. S.K. Patyal, were among those who joined the party. The other three former top officers Were Lt. Gen. R.N. Singh, who had served as the director general of military intelligence, Lt. Gen. Sunit Kumar, the former director general of information services and IT, and Lt. Gen. Nitin Kohli, who had served as the signal officer-in chief at Army headquarters.
      Colonel R.K. Tripathi, who had served as judge advocate general, and Wing Commander Navneet Magon, a former Air Force medical services doctor, also joined the BJP.

      • The Army is just a reflection of Indian society, I joined as an emergency commissioned officer in 1940 and retired in 1969. We seem to have diverged from what we were then.
        I will not advise my great grandchildren to join the Indian army if they were in India today, but as a former Sikh officer who lives in Canada this is just my opinion.
        It seems to be becoming a Hindu army for a Hindu Rashtra and if this trend continues, the army will lose its great secular credentials we were so proud of.

        • This discussion is off topic. The Print editors kindly note: comments like the above must be removed.
          The article is about Pakistan using social media to spy on us and not the RSS.
          The RSS is an organisation with patriotic values and complimentary to Army ethos, it’s ideals and Philosophy can be a great benefit in shaping minds of our warrior class. The teachings can be the making of the modern day Indian soldier.
          We are in sync with the RSS it’s ideas of love for the motherland should resonate with every officer and jawan.

          • you will then be able to reply as to why all the RSS affiliates nabbed spying on the Indian Army in 2017, 2018 and 2019 are out on Bail. The very inquiry that got them arrested by various state ATS and NIA was conducted when S K Patyal was DGMI. And why NSA has not been invoked in any of those cases. Just FYI, Mr Balram SIngh the alleged Kingpin of the gang was given bail twice in 2018 and was caught spying again in August 2019. You want to ask me why the hurry to remove 370 in the first week of August and establish a Fast Track court for the Ayodhya Mandir?? To arrest Balram Singh in the backdrop…….in the last week of August…….Traitor Government, Traitor general………Soulless, Gutless, cowards……

  2. Sir..
    Ive been reading your articles…
    Underestimating oneself…and overestimating the enemy is good some time….pakistan as a nation is on a self destruct mode if credible change does not come about in that country(in terms of economy..education..socio cultural institutions..industry and infra ..jobs..health care..pashtun and baluch..prob..the list is long..)certain pricks by the pak establishment can b well absorbed and repulsed by our establishment…
    China…well..the more Xi tightens his grip..the more things flow out of his hand….(hongkong..the economy.. as a result of the trade war) ( small pockets of “freedom of thought” are blooming out..due to a rising, aspirational population at the same time distress is also spreading due to rising income inequality) external powers like US,INDIA,Vietnam.japan…etc….even russia for that matter r not going to sit and watch Xi display his naked hegemonic desires..
    There will be a pushback(india’s rcep withdrawl,quad…india/japan outreach to africa…EU alligning with japan for a alternate BRI..etc..geography suits india more strategically w.r.to land and sea(armed conflict) and a little bit air also(in terms of tibet)and then there is the economic enviorment which suits india more..china also faces a demographic time bomb
    …india probably needs max 8 to 10 years more..for a complete defence upgrade and overhaul…and of course as a nation ..if there is ONE thing we are very good at ..it is “deception”..our so called certain “flaws”are sometimes highlighted more.. in order to hide our strengths…
    There are many other factors for which this column is small…
    I certainly lack the experience and maturity..that you… sir..bring to this domain..
    But this is my pov…i hope im not off track much..

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