Intelligence: Facebook And The Virtual Honey Trap


March 27, 2018: In early 2018 Indian media reported cases of officers (one air force, one army) being arrested after getting caught stealing, or attempting to steal, classified documents for a girlfriend they met on the Internet (often Facebook). This is called a honey trap and usually involves a female spy befriending someone and seducing secrets out of him. But since Internet access via cell phones became so common in the last decade the “virtual honey trap” has become more popular in many parts of the world. By “virtual” is meant that military men, usually officers, are seduced by virtual women via social networks where the recruiters use photos and talk of eventual physical contact in exchange for digital photos of documents sent via encrypted apps like WhatsApp. After some initial success the Indian military cracked down by ordering military personnel, especially those with access to classified data, to not use their real names or indicate they are in the military while online, especially on social networks. In addition rules forbidding having cell phones in areas where classified documents or activities are were more strictly enforced. This forced recruiters to work harder to identify military people worth going after and develop more effective entrapment scripts and strategies. The most frequent known victims of these virtual honey traps are Indians but that is because, unlike China and Pakistan (two known users of this technique) India has a free press where the men recruited and caught usually become known. Not so in Pakistan and China, or at least not often. But one thing all three nations (and most nations in general) have in common is military personnel looking for love in all the wrong places for all the wrong reasons.

Since the 1990s Pakistan has quietly and extensively changed how it creates and manages spies inside India. For decades Pakistan mainly relied on agents recruited and trained in Pakistan to pass as Indians. After their training, which often took years, was completed these agents were sent to India where they often spent many more years working their way into jobs where they could obtain useful information. The Pakistani agents also sought Indians willing to gather information, usually for a price. India is a poor country and many low level, and poorly paid, government employees were willing to sell information if the price was right. All this was very expensive and the Pakistanis were always on the lookout for more efficient (and cheaper) techniques.

The use of virtual honey traps first became known when it was used against Indians by Pakistan and other nations (Taiwan, South Korea and Japan) by China. The most details are available about the use of these techniques by Pakistan against India. These details began to emerge after 2012. It all began when India became more effective at catching traditional Pakistani spies. Over the years India learned how to quickly detect, identify and arrest these spies as well as their Pakistani handlers. As a result Pakistan began switching from using agents inside India to recruiting and managing spies via the Internet. The highly trained Pakistani agents could remain safe in Pakistan and develop techniques to find and manage Indian spies via the Internet. India still catches these traditional spies, but has come to discover that there are a lot more of them. Since 2015 over a dozen have been arrested. This included four post office employees who were intercepting mail sent from one Indian base to another and looking for salable information. That was passed on to Pakistan, which paid well for this stuff. Often information was literally phoned in using hard-to-trace SIMS supplied by the Pakistanis.

Pakistan accepted the risk of these spies getting caught because the payoff was often considerable. For example in early 2015 Indian police arrested an employee (a cameraman) for the government defense research organization (DRDO) and accused him of spying for Pakistan. The suspect was accused of passing on information about missile research and tests and doing so for up to ten months. The suspect admitted that he had met with ISI (Pakistani intelligence) agents in India several times in 2014. Apparently this man was caught because Indian intelligence was monitoring ISI agents. It’s unclear why the Indian man agreed to be a spy, although money appears to be the most likely motivator.

In addition to cash Pakistan has found that sex also works and is being used more frequently via the Internet. Thus in mid-2014 an Indian army warrant officer (Subedar) was arrested and charged with spying for Pakistan. The arrested man had been recruited in 2013 via Facebook by a woman who sent him software that he posted to his work server. This software enabled the Pakistanis to hack into the headquarters where the warrant officer worked. The Pakistani woman (or someone posing as a woman) convinced the warrant officer she was interested in him and asked him to help her with some work she was doing for the NGO she was employed by. The warrant officer fell for all this and enabled the Pakistanis to get a lot of information about the readiness and deployment of several Indian missile units. It is as yet unclear if the warrant officer knew he was being played or that he was really smitten by his new online girlfriend.

Such honey traps have been encountered in India for quite some time and were known to exist in antiquity. In 2011 an infantry lieutenant-colonel was prosecuted for spying for Pakistan. The officer was recruited in 2010 while in Bangladesh, where he was attending a course at a Bangladesh military school. The Pakistani ISI had a woman operative seduce the Indian officer, and the sexual activity was recorded on video. The officer was given a choice of the video being made public, or him becoming a Pakistani spy. The officer became a spy and was caught by Indian counterintelligence after a few months.

Honey traps are still less frequently encountered in South Asia and the most common method is still simply offering cash. An Indian army clerk was arrested earlier in 2014 for doing that. In early 2013 India police arrested four Indians and accused them of working for ISI and passing on information and documents for at least three years. That spy cell mainly operated near the Nepal border and cash was the main motivator.

Pakistan is constantly seeking Indian military personnel willing to spy for cash or sex. Even most Indian Moslems have no love for Pakistan and thus ISI concentrates on the greed, need or blackmail approach to recruiting Indian agents. India does the same in Pakistan, but India, with six times the population of Pakistan, is a far larger target and has more secrets Pakistan wants. The virtual honey pot, however, has turned out to be very effective and apparently cheaper than the traditional methods of offering cash and using physical contact (between foreign handler and local recruited agent). More effective forms of encrypted Internet communication also help as does the fact that so many of the people targeted have smart phones and regularly access the Internet via those devices.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close