In the last few years, the Indian armed forces have time and again adopted measures to control increasing incidents of cyber espionage and honeytrapping through social networks. In yet another move, the Army issued a 19-page policy entitled ‘Policy on usage of social media in Indian Army’, designed to reinforce the Official Secrets Act (1923) in some ways, through a long list of do’s and donts’s for the officers and jawans.
Technological advancements and changes in the modern day battlefield including cyberspace have ushered in a new era of military preparedness, necessitating measures to counter cyber threats on own networks. The inherent importance of information superiority for quick decision making during combat operations whether on land, sea, air or the cyberspace has led to defence forces opting for systems, policy measures that are designed to provide exceptional situational awareness with the ability to detect and destroy potential threats, whether man made or accidental. With the proliferation of myriad social media platforms, cyber threats now include attacks made on personnel coercing them to breach security inadvertently.
Unrestricted use of the social media has led to breach of security on numerous occasions. The quintessential Pathankot Attack ( January 2016) which shifted the investigative fulcrum inexorably towards the honey trapping of officials through Facebook and misinformation about operations through unidentified whatsapp groups clearly calls for a stringent control on the use of social media these days. Officers and jawans who once lived in oblivion , stationed in places which for any civilian may possibly have remained unknown are now just 140 characters away from their friends, family and just anybody. An anonymous person hiding behind an email, or a blog or a social media account or a number which can be easily bought from any grocery store, has the potential of paralyzing an organization through transfer of unauthorized codes in its communication network using malwares, spywares etc, or through anti national videos and posts, or through thought provoking messages calling for non cooperation with Indian establishment etc. On a personal front, honey trapping of officers for anti national activities is the easiest way out to get access to sensitive information. The geopolitical ramifications of breach of national security through social media can be easily understood through a mapping of nations engaged in cyber war.
In its policy letter on usage of social media issued to all army formations, units & stations the army recognizes the purposive and pragmatic role of social media in providing psychological and social support to their soldiers but with a word of caution. Ranks, names, stations and sensitive information are not to be made public. In fact even friends and family members of soldiers are advised not to disclose any information revealing the identity of a soldier, his/her location etc. This is a routine move and with increasing reports of misuse of social media the soldiers are now using the internet with full accountability and responsibility.
The psychological war being fought on the social media has such serious implications that it can change the dynamics of vox populi pushing it in the direction of both for or against the nation. The recent episode of 22 year old Hizb-ul-Mujahideen operative, Burhan Wani’s sudden rise as a hero in Kashmir inspiring many through his Facebook posts and the violence which engulfed several lives following his encounter, calls for a strong affirmative action putting a check on the social media activities of both the soldiers and civil society.
The armed forces have an extant mechanism to address and engage with the media on issues ranging from operations to administration, the Public Relations Office. This definitely needs to be both strengthened and simultaneously brought at par with various agencies involved in cyber warfare, to be able to tackle such malinformation right at the source itself.
While the Indian armed forces have liberalized policy to keep up with the times, a similar move for the bureaucratic side is also on the cards. Online and offline activities of both politicians and bureaucrats should also be monitored. Online activity especially criticism of the government is now proposed to be viewed as a violation of the conduct rules for bureaucrats, but the government has left a huge gap by leaving politicians out of the ambit of this policy. Breach of national security may not always come from a soldier’s or a pen-pusher’s social media account. It could be anybody.
*Vishakha Amitabh Hoskote, MPHIL. International Relations,M.A International Relations with Specialisation in Politics,PGD Development Communication, B.A. Political Science