Trapped in Honey Trap

Espionage is a game, where those harvesting information must keep upping the ante by constantly inventing new methods and developing new sources to acquire information – including the liberal use of feminine charms. Cyber snooping technology is sophisticated and social media has opened new avenues for connecting and communicating with strangers. It is this that India will have to constantly innovate and guard against

By Ranjit Bhushan
  • The honey trap menace is on the rise in the last few years, and has been acknowledged by Indian authorities
  • In 2022 alone, there have been a rash of such cases, even as social media broadens its reach across the country
  • The NIA has launched an investigation into a fake Facebook account set up by ISI to steal defence data
  • Experts say that the arrival of WhatsApp has made the availability of phone numbers easy

IN 2019, noted American expert on terror and internal security, Peter Chalk, identified a tendency, which has since then developed wings – as well as a logic of its own.  

Speaking at the KPS Gill Memorial lecture that year, he flagged a few key concerns. Pakistan’s spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), he said, may well leverage encrypted social media sites, secure telecommunication platforms and online mapping technology to covertly facilitate jihadist recruitment drives or directly support terrorist strikes in Kashmir, after being well informed by its Indian `agents’, often compromised through seduction.   

This American Rand Corporation official, while admitting that the US was playing a double game in Pakistan to protect its own strategic interests, believed that India’s prickly neighbour could be harnessing the power of social media to launch attacks on the Indian economy, as well as use these popular platforms for recruiting spies and create instability.

Chalk said that social media groups like Google, WhatsApp and others, were now realising that the use of their platforms for subversive activities was impacting their credibility. “As noted, Twitter is already being used to promote riots and protests in and now that the province (Kashmir) has been stripped of its special autonomous status, groups such as LeT (Lashkar-e-Taiba), will doubtless seek to escalate the tempo of this unrest through other online mediums,” he said. 

CHINA’S MSS

In other words, if the ISI or another hostile foreign agency – like China’s shadowy but innocuously-named intelligence agency, Ministry of State Security (MSS), operating through the ISI, wants to get into India’s classified underbelly today – the armed forces, defence research and space organisations – the online charms of a woman, it seems, can produce great results.

MSS functions as China’s intelligence, security, and secret police agency, all rolled into one. A document from the U.S. Department of Justice described the agency as being like a combination of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Experts say that social media has become a powerful tool in the hands of ISI to lure potential Indian spies. Every year, around 40,000 youths join the Indian Army, navy, or air force at the average age of 19 years. “They are very young and don’t have any idea about the sensitivity of the job. They become vulnerable targets of the enemy, which tries to trap them and extract sensitive information about the deployment and vital installations of the Indian security apparatus. Indian security agencies have identified about 100 accounts operated by the Pakistani and Chinese agencies. The Pakistanis get funds from their Chinese counterparts to provide sensitive information about Indian deployments and vital security installations,” explains an officer. 

MSS functions as China’s intelligence, security, and secret police agency, all rolled into one. A document from the U.S. Department of Justice described the agency as being like a combination of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)

On June 17, 2022, 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.

HEAVY DOCUMENTATION

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. Reddy had 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 certain 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, Reddy was easy to lure. In the months that followed, the contractual Indian employee was besotted by promises of marriage. Sleuths believe the female handler succeeded in seeking out “highly secure and confidential information of DRDL-RCI Complex through the social media”.Reddy became suspicious when Natasha Rao suddenly became Simran Chopra on her Facebook profile and declined to take his messages, all too suddenly.

HISTORY OF HONEYTRAPS

To be sure, honeytraps – or the use of sexuality, sex or the promise of sex or a romantic relationship for espionage – aren’t new. History is replete with examples of women and espionage in World War 1 and 2.  American agents Virginia Hall, Indo-British radio operator, Noor Inayat Khan and Dutch exotic dancer, Mata Hari or MargarethaZelle, have fabulous records of dropping behind enemy lines and using their feminine charms to snoop on the enemy.  

What’s newer, though, is the use of social media to set and execute these traps. The arrival of Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram – has helped pursue the unholy agenda. 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.

The modus operandi is quite rather simple All it takes is for an ‘attractive’ woman to make mobile phone calls or place a Facebook friend’s request – behind the call or Facebook request, it is difficult to say whether the one seeking company is 20 or 40 The rendezvous is fixed, and money promised

“It is a western habit that India is picking up,” former RAW chief A S Dulat told this writer some time ago. RAW or the Research and Analysis Wing is India’s premium foreign intelligence agency.

In 2022 alone, there have been a rash of such cases, even as social media broadens its reach across the country. It would almost seem too easy to hook Indian spies. Sample this year’s list:  

  1. On August 8, six persons were detained by the Rajasthan Police for allegedly having connections with the ISI.
  2. In July, an army jawan, Shantimoy Rana, was arrested by the Rajasthan Police CID for allegedly leaking sensitive information to a woman ISI agent and was booked under the Official Secrets Act. Police said that ISI agent Gurnaur Kaur alias Ankita had contacted the Army jawan through social media. Rana, a resident of West Bengal, was associated with the Indian Army since 2018.
  3. In May, in a joint operation of the Delhi Police crime branch and military intelligence, an Indian Air Force staffer 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.
  4. 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 a multinational company in Bengaluru. Her `marriage’ proposal to the thrilled gunner came with a request for photocopies of confidential documents, which was duly supplied on WhatsApp.
  5. 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.
HONEY TRAPPING ON THE RISE

That the honey trap menace is on the rise in the last few years, has been acknowledged by Indian authorities. As early as in December 2019, the Indian Army identified 150 profiles being used by Pakistan to entice 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.

Defence services are particularly wary and want to keep an eye on its young fighters. For instance, the Indian Navy launched an investigation named Operation Dolphin Nose to track down its personnel being lured by foreign women spies. In December 2019, seven Indian Navy sailors were arrested under this special operation for leaking sensitive information regarding the Navy to Pakistan. In January 2020, three more navy personnel were held for snooping. The National Investigation Agency or NIA, the central agency tasked with counter-terrorist duties in India, is currently probing this case.

The modus operandi is quite rather simple. All it takes is for an ‘attractive’ woman to make mobile phone calls or place a Facebook friend’s request – behind the call or Facebook request, it is difficult to say whether the one seeking company is 20 or 40. The rendezvous is fixed, and money promised.

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

Experts say that the arrival of WhatsApp has made the availability of phone numbers easy. It is relatively simple for an unknown number to slip into a WhatsApp group or several groups, get hold of key mobile numbers and keep a silent watch on the conversation flow, without anyone noticing anything untoward.    

The NIA has launched an investigation into a fake Facebook account set up by ISI to steal defence data. The purpose behind this fake account was reportedly to inject malware into computers, phones and other devices of defence personnel and employees working in the defence sector for laying their hands on sensitive information.

REORIENTING TRAINING

The NIA will investigate the case under the Official Secrets Act, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), the Information Technology Act and Conspiracy to Wage War against India because sensitive data may have been accessed by ISI handlers in this country.  

The malware was disseminated from an unknown location in Islamabad, Pakistan.   

The then Army Chief, Gen MM Navarane, said in 2021 that “Information Security is the biggest challenge to national security in the present scenario,” adding: “Cyberwarfare is one of the non-traditional threats. It is not only a threat to our information system, but it is also a threat to the leaking of sensitive information from our country.”   

Defence services are particularly wary and want to keep an eye on its young fighters. For instance, the Indian Navy launched an investigation named Operation Dolphin Nose to track down its personnel being lured by foreign women spies

According to a senior Intelligence Bureau (IB) 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 Pakistan. 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 modernised.

DEFENCE PSYCHOLOGY

Surprisingly, defence psychology is a relatively new discipline in India, despite the 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 (DIPR), 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 the bulk 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. 

LONE WOLF ATTACK

There are policy analysts like Suvrokamal Dutta, who believe that because of stringent measures adopted by the Modi government in the last few years, the ISI scrutiny of higher rungs of officials – as was the case earlier – has given way to finding recruits among the lower ranks of the defence personnel and bureaucracy.

“The tough measures of the current government have made hiring spies among defence personnel in the border areas difficult. So, the old ploy is not working. There has been a sea change in attitudes and in the way, policies are implemented. It is no longer as easy to identify high officials for spying,” he points out.

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

That, says Dutta, has led to another disturbing trend. “What this tight government scrutiny has done is that instead of looking only for defence personnel, planners across the border are trying to identify civilians and ordinary citizens to inflict damage. Instead of the soldier, airman or the navy personnel, the attempt is to identify common men to take up arms against the state; it is like a live human bomb moving around, undetected,” he points out.

A typical example is of the Gorakhnath Temple case in UP, where Ahmad Murtaza Abbasi forcibly tried to enter the temple premises on April 3 and attacked on-duty police personnel with a sharp weapon. The incident was described as a lone wolf attack and an attempt to snatch the rifle of security officials to subsequently stage a big operation.

ISIS HONEY TRAP

More to the point, Abbasi told the police that he was ready to join ISIS or the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, after the global terror outfit had honey-trapped him. The accused admitted that he had sent a sum of Rs 40,000 into a girl’s account, who had lured him into ISIS. In addition, he had sent Rs 8.5 lakh to support ISIS terror activities via organisations related to its supporters in different countries in Europe and America.

The police have seized his e-devices and his various social media accounts like Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, and E-wallets.

Clearly, while social media is a boon to the modern world, helping India scale new heights in information technology, like all boons, it has its downsides. It would be naïve to assume that powers inimical to this country are not going to use the same tools to bleed India.   

Let’s also face it: espionage is a game, where any country engaged in harvesting information must keep upping the ante by constantly inventing new methods and developing new sources to acquire information. It is equally true that cyber snooping technology has become sophisticated and social media has opened new avenues for connecting and communicating with strangers. It is this that India needs to constantly innovate and guard against.

Ranjit Bhushan

Ranjit Bhushan is a Delhi-based journalist and author.  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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