HONEYTRAPS: LONELY, JUNIOR PERSONNEL ARE A CLEARER MARK FOR SPY AGENCIES IN THE AGE OF SOCIAL MEDIA

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Experts say the advent of social media – led mainly by Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram – has facilitated contact with individuals on a scale not evidenced before; counterintelligence needs to focus more on reorienting training courses; lonely men posted at remote locations are principal targets.

If Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) or another hostile foreign agency wants to get into the country’s classified underbelly today – the armed forces, defence research and space organizations – the online charms of a femme fatale, it seems, can produce astonishing results.

On June 17, a contractual employee of the Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL) in Hyderabad was held for passing confidential information on India’s missile programme to an alleged ISI operative in Pakistan through social media. The 29-year-old accused, identified as Dukka Mallikarjuna Reddy alias Arjun Bittu, was arrested from his home in Hyderabad.

Cyber sleuths monitoring social media in the last 20 months or so, had come across unusually heavy documentation emanating from Reddy’s Facebook account – information that was not the usual social chatter. Instead, there were details of classified advanced naval system programmes from the defence lab’s RCI complex in Balapur, Hyderabad, where the accused was posted.

That was enough to set off alarm bells in the security establishment – alarm bells, which even Reddy caught on to, albeit too late.

He had proudly updated his job status with DRDL on Facebook in March 2018. Two years later, in March 2020, he was contacted by an alleged ISI handler, a silver-tongued woman, Natasha Rao, who introduced herself as a UK Defence Journal employee whose father had served in the Indian Air Force before relocating to the United Kingdom.

Thereafter, say investigators, it did not take much to lure Reddy. In the months that followed, Reddy was besotted by promises of marriage and undying love. Sleuths believe the female handler succeeded in seeking out “highly secured and confidential information of DRDL-RCI Complex through the social media”.

Police said that Reddy kept transferring confidential defence details to the ISI handler until December last year but became suspicious when Natasha changed her Facebook profile name to Simran Chopra and declined to take his messages, all too suddenly.

During the probe, the police found that Natasha had also sought Reddy’s bank account details and were trying to ascertain if money had been transferred to the account or not. His two mobile phones, a SIM card, and a laptop have been seized by security agencies.

To be sure, the pejoratively named honeytraps – or the use of sexuality, sex or the promise of sex or a romantic relationship for espionage – aren’t new. There are fabulously documented examples of so-called femme fatales – the most prominent one being Dutch exotic dancer Mata Hari or Margaretha Zelle. What’s newer, though, is the use of social media to set and execute these traps.

The arrival of social media – particularly Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram – has accentuated the curve. Earlier, while it would be troublesome, not to mention risky, to bait a potential informer or spy, the arrival of these long-distance electronic linkages has eased matters to a very significant degree.

“It is a western habit that India is picking up,” former RAW chief A.S. Dulat, said. RAW or the Research and Analysis Wing is India’s premium intelligence agency.

Consider the following:

** In May 2022, in a joint operation of the Delhi Police crime branch and military intelligence, an Indian Air Force airman was arrested for espionage at Dhaula Kuan, close to the Delhi Cantonment. Devendra Sharma, posted at the records office in New Delhi, was nabbed while allegedly attempting to gather sensitive information about the armed forces. The arrest came after an investigation revealed that the Kanpur resident was honey-trapped on Facebook and found to be passing on information to the ISI.

** In the same month, an army gunner Pradeep Prajapat, from an “extra-sensitive” unit in Jodhpur was held in Jaisalmer for passing on information to a woman who claimed to work for an MNC in Bengaluru. Her “marriage” proposal to the thrilled gunner came with a request for photocopies of confidential documents, which was duly supplied on WhatsApp.

** In early 2022, the police had arrested Rohtak’s Gaurav Kumar, who had been asked to click pictures each time he visited an army training camp. Police said that Gaurav, preparing for a career in the military, had visited 18 army recruitment camps from where he is supposed to have passed on a lot of information, including pictorial evidence.

** In September 2021, a Ludhiana Police counter-intelligence team picked up Jaswinder Singh over his alleged links to a Pakistani spy, a woman who had endeared herself to him, speaking in fine Punjabi, identifying herself as Jasleen Brar from Bathinda. Jaswinder has been charged with providing information about the movement of Indian Army units in Punjab, which is a regular affair in the sensitive border state.

** In January last year, the Rajasthan CID detained the husband of a former sarpanch, identified as Satyanarayan Paliwal, who was reportedly honey-trapped by the ISI. He confessed to having shared confidential documents on social media with a certain “Sujata”, who had vanished after a romantic interlude, presumably after her assignment was deemed complete.

** Earlier, in December 2019, the Indian Army identified 150 profiles being used by Pakistan to honey trap Indian Army officers. The increasing frequency of such incidents led the government to ask soldiers to remove Facebook, Instagram and 87 other apps from their phones. The most extensive line-up of banned software included 15 dating apps like Tinder, Truly Madly, and OkCupid.

** Operation Dolphin Nose is an ongoing investigation by the Indian Navy to track down its personnel being honey-trapped. In December 2019, seven Indian Navy sailors were arrested under Operation Dolphin Nose for leaking sensitive information regarding the Navy to Pakistan. In January 2020, three more navy personnel were held for spying.

The modus operandi is far from complicated. All it takes is for an “attractive” woman to make phone calls to people whom they wish to hook – behind the mobile phone call or Facebook friend request, it is difficult to say whether the one seeking association is 20 or 40. Rendezvous are fixed and money promised. The arrival of WhatsApp has made the availability of phone numbers easy.

In the army, sleuths found out that these women were “liking” posts by soldiers, then moving to a romantic dalliance before making their “requests”.

According to a senior intelligence bureau official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, counter-intelligence spooks need to reorient their training programme. “New recruits must be constantly told to be on their guard. It is done during training, but over a period, personnel – particularly those who are young, posted at remote locations and lonely – tend to get carried away,” he said.

In 2018, Nishant Agrawal, an engineer employed with BrahMos Aerospace, ended up revealing crucial details about India’s supersonic cruise missile, BrahMos. During the probe, the Uttar Pradesh Police came across three fake Facebook IDs, where the internet protocol (IP) addresses were traced to Islamabad. Two of these Pakistan-based accounts were run under the names “Pooja Ranjan” and “Neha Sharma”. The accused continues to languish in the Nagpur Central Jail.

Obviously, in this time and age of modern communications and social media, it is important that the lower ranks of the defence forces, who are the most obvious targets of potential spies, be reoriented and modernized.

Surprisingly, defence psychology is a relatively new discipline in India, despite establishment in 1943 of The War Selection Officer Board in Dehradun, for the psychological procedure of selection.

Three military psychologists – Swati Mukherjee, Updesh Kumar, and Manas K. Mandal of the Delhi-based Defence Institute of Psychological Research, in a paper titled “Status of Military Psychology in India: A Review” – admit that the selection process of Other Ranks (ORs or sepoys), needs a revamp.

They write that the Indian armed forces have been using projective personality testing for selection of officers for a long time, but for personnel below the officer rank (PBOR), which constitute a very substantial part of the armed forces, selection has been largely based on non-psychological techniques.

Now, however, things are changing. New tests are aimed at “enhancing their motivation to work and ensuring effective measures to screen out individuals with potential negative tendencies,” they observed.

“A selection battery consisting of a cognitive and a personality test has been developed for the selection of the Other Ranks in the Indian Army. The cognitive test has been developed in nonverbal format using matrix type items keeping in view the educational level and diversity of applicant population,” they wrote in the paper.

Clearly, India could do more with such ideas. But it appears that the road ahead is long, given that not a single university department in the country offers a course in military psychology.

Ranjit Bhushan is an independent journalist and former Nehru Fellow at Jamia Millia University. In a career spanning more than three decades, he has worked with Outlook, The Times of India, The Indian Express, the Press Trust of India, Associated Press, Financial Chronicle, and DNA.

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