Sustained espionage and spying activity over cyber platforms led to the Indian Army’s decision to ban 89 social media apps this week, a senior officer of the Indian Army has confirmed to this journalist.

“We are being harmed. It has now been confirmed that soldiers and officers within the Indian Army are being profiled by the adversaries. It is also confirmed that devices like mobile phones and computers have been controlled by them. Social media profiles have been used to lure some of our people for honey-trapping. Spying is actively underway through social media,” senior officers of the Indian Army further revealed.

The decision to ban several social media apps was made public (informally) on 8 July, but the instructions were given in an internal note – accessed by this journalist in the first week of June – to the plan which was under consideration for the past (over) four months. The note titled ‘Regulatory Measures for Social Media Platforms’ on ‘banned sites’ says:

“In view of the exponential increase in the number of cases being targeted by the hostile intelligence agencies and existing vulnerabilities, the use of Facebook accounts by Army personnel is banned. Hence, the existing accounts are required to be deleted and not left deactivated by 1 June 2020.”

The note further elaborates on all the banned sites and possible action against defaulters who continue to be on the banned social media apps against the rules.

Indian Army Bans Apps Like FB & Instagram – Earlier, Indian Navy Had Done The Same. Here’s Why

While the banned social media apps include Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, they also include news apps like Daily Hunt and News Dog. The Indian Army’s decision comes merely days after the Government of India’s Ministry of Electronics and IT banned 59 Chinese mobile phone apps, which, according to them, were ‘prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India, the defence of India, the security of the state and public order’.

When asked about the sudden decision to ban several apps, the Indian Army Spokesperson Col Aman Anand told this journalist for The Quint: “The information security concerns from social media apps were under scrutiny of our experts for a long time now. There is adequate evidence to believe that some vulnerabilities are being exploited by the adversaries. We will continue to take measures that are considered necessary to guard our men, material and information.”

The Indian Navy, earlier in February 2020, had banned over 85 social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, TikTok – as well as YouTube, Signal and Telegram.

The Navy, additionally, had also banned the use of smartphones in warships, as well as on all Naval premises in the country. The decision from the Indian Navy came after a nationwide raid led to the arrest of seven serving personnel who were found involved in espionage activities for Pakistan. The detained sailors were based in Mumbai, Karwar and Visakhapatnam after it was revealed that they were honey-trapped through social media sites, and were constantly sharing critical information to Pakistani intelligence agencies.

While the debate around the use of social media apps has been underway for the last decade or so within the Indian Army, a call has finally been taken after several recent incidents of espionage through social media, which had been red-flagged by Military Intelligence as well as the Intelligence Bureau (IB).

The Threat of Pakistani Espionage

On 31 May 2020, Indian Intelligence agencies had nabbed two officers of the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi from Karol Bagh area, after a secret tip off was received that they were involved in procuring and supplying confidential documents pertaining to the Indian Armed Forces. Sources reveal that both were involved in luring Indian Army Jawans into providing sensitive information about Army infrastructure and movements.

Subsequently, in ‘Operation Desert Chase’, two ISI agents – Vikas Kumar and Chiman Lal – were caught by Military Intelligence from Rajasthan, for working as espionage agents for Pakistani intelligence agencies.

It was learnt that Vikas Kumar, a civil defence employee working at the Army Ammunition Depot at Shri Ganganagar, was cultivated by a Pakistan Intelligence Operative (PIO) through a fake Facebook profile in the name of one ‘Anoshka Chopra’, being run from Multan, Pakistan. Kumar had shared information on Order of Battle, composition, and order of military fighting formation, ammunition details, as well as details of units coming for military practice.

Earlier in May 2019, a 26-year-old Indian Army clerk, posted in an infantry battalion, was arrested from Mhow in Madhya Pradesh, after he was found honey-trapped by a Pakistani intelligence agency. The clerk was in touch with a woman on Facebook who claimed to be an international journalist, and passed on information about the movement of troops as well as military training.

In November 2019, two Indian Army soldiers were arrested in Jodhpur while on their way to Pokhran in Rajasthan, after it was found that both were sharing tactical information with Pakistani women agents through various social media platforms. The woman used VoIp (Voice Over Internet Protocol) to make calls with a Punjabi accent and gather information on the Indian Army’s deployment, critical equipment and movements.

How China ‘Aids & Abets’ Pakistani Espionage

While the fact that Pakistani intelligence agencies use social media to trap Indian Army personnel has been frequently established, Intelligence sources have now revealed a different and massive espionage ring – one involving China through Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, as well as in Bangalore, Karnataka. Sources also revealed that China often used Nepalese Gorkha’s to seek out information in India. ‘Information Exchange’ between Pakistan and China has also been very active recently.

While Islamabad shares critical human intelligence with Beijing, the latter helps with technology and equipment.

Intelligence sources have also been keeping a watch on the Chinese employees of China’s technology giant Huawei in India, who are suspected to be intelligence agents working in the guise of IT experts or engineers.

In the wake of the recent Galwan Valley standoff between India and China, Intelligence agencies have observed heightened activity by Pakistani ISI agents who are seeking information from Indian journalists, Army personnel and others on Indian Army deployment in Ladakh, and New Delhi's imminent moves on the issue.

Agencies suspect that the information extracted by the ISI is at the behest of Beijing.

China’s Focus On Cyber & Information Warfare Is Worrying

“China’s strategy is of three warfare – media warfare, legal warfare and cyber warfare, which includes psychological/information warfare. This is what they believe in. They have endeavoured to make the People’s Liberation Army stronger and well-equipped for coercion, but ultimately, their aim is to win a war without fighting it; the good old Sun Tzu model. As a result, China will place tremendous focus on cyber and information warfare in the coming time (sic). All these Internet apps are the medium to assist in this (sic). They help in converting the public opinion and mind as well as bringing alternative thought processes. I also strongly believe that they shouldn’t be making money from our pockets. From the public point of view, there are no two ways about it, that you just had to remove these,” says Lt Gen (Retd) Ata Hasnain, former GOC of Indian Army’s 15th Chinar Corps in Kashmir, and presently, a member of India’s National Disaster Management Authority.

Huge Scope For Social Media Apps To Be Used For Honey-Trapping

As the Indian Army has finally reached a consensus to ban most social media apps for security reasons, several concerns still remain. The efforts of spreading awareness and sensitising the forces on social media security aspects and loopholes hasn’t achieved the desired goals.

The lack of infrastructure and capacity-building in the domain has further weakened the forces at a time when many critical components of security systems that India has, are from China. China has a highly-evolved cyber warfare mechanism which includes not just intelligence-gathering, but also electronic warfare, which denies the opponent any use of its own equipment through hacking or other mechanisms. India has mostly remained focused on intelligence-gathering and not yet brainstormed on the idea of electronic warfare.

The ban on websites and apps which pose a critical security threat, may be a step in the right direction – to prevent subversion and leakage of information – but not much has been done to counter it, even after preempting electronic warfare offensive actions of the enemy.

The Indian Army and the security establishment will have to modernise as per the rapidly changing combat techniques as well as evolutionary tactical changes – and the growing need to integrate the information warfare with land warfare of the military. It’s high time the defence establishment woke up to the challenges of cyber and electronic warfare, and made India self-reliant – to undertake similar operations in the future.