June 8, 2019:
Once more the Indian Army found one of its personnel recruited as a spy by Pakistani agents pretending to be an Indian woman who entraps the soldier as a regular supplied of information. The latest case was unusual in that the female Pakistani agent calling an army staff officer serving in the headquarters of a unit stationed in northeast India. The Pakistan spy said she was from the Army Wives Welfare Association but that officer was away from the office and the call was transferred to a 25 year old corporal. The Pakistani agent found the corporal suitable for entrapment and during their brief phone call persuaded him to contact her via her Internet accounts on WhatsApp and Instagram to continue their conversation. That was how the Pakistani agent “developed” the corporal as a provider of information on Indian army troop movements.
Indian military intelligence was, by this time, aware of how these Pakistani “honey traps” worked and knew what signs to look for. Soon the Indian counterintelligence operatives were monitoring the corporals’ activities and did so for over five months before making an arrest. None of the information the corporal passed on was of high value so Indian intelligence was apparently hoping to gather more information on this female Pakistani agent and what kinds of tradecraft (techniques) the Pakistanis were currently using. In more and more of these Pakistani honey trap efforts, it turns out to be Indian counterintelligence that is the major player.
Most casual observers, who just see these events described, fail to realize that most of the data obtained is low-grade stuff and that the Indians detected the honey trap early and simply monitored it to obtain more data on how Pakistan intelligence operated and noting what they were asking for. If something truly important was requested the honey trap op would be shut down.
The Indian military has proved very vulnerable to these honey trap tactics, but in part that was because the Pakistanis tried it a lot and had a hard time getting to and entrapping really good sources of information. Such cases must involve officers with access to important and closely held information. By late 2018 the Pakistanis modified their tactics by having agents go after more young enlisted soldiers and seducing low-grade information out of them in the hope that this might lead to something more useful than detailed photos of equipment and information about unit locations and operations (from a junior soldiers’ perspective). A lot of what junior troops could provide could be easily found on the Internet, without hacking into well protected databases. In early 2019 it was revealed that Indian counterintelligence had uncovered a honey trap campaign that had already apparently ensnared dozens of Indian soldiers seduced into providing information. In some cases, cash payments (under a hundred dollars) were involved as well. But the main idea was to develop many low ranking troops who could be used for extended periods to provide low-level data that Indian counterintelligence operations would not detect. That may have been too optimistic because the Indians were trying to monitor a lot of these low-level honey trap victims to turn the tables on the Pakistanis and gather information on the growing number of Pakistani male and female operatives who carry out these operations from the safety of Pakistan.
This was another battle in the decades long espionage war between Pakistan and India. Just like the more conventional wars, Pakistan has fought with India since both states were created, Pakistan has never won any clear victories. Intelligence operations tend to be sustained, not episodic like wars but Pakistan and their larger (by about six times in terms of population and GDP, somewhat less in military terms) neighbor. Pakistan can take credit for accomplishing more than the size discrepancy indicates but this, like many Pakistani military actions, seem directed more at impressing Pakistanis in general than in doing any significant damage to their chosen archenemy.
What the Pakistanis have had a hard time with is using more sophisticated and effective honey traps capable of recruiting officers. In early 2018, there was a case where two officers (one air force, one army) were arrested after getting caught stealing, or attempting to steal, classified documents for a girlfriend they met on the Internet. A common venue for these seductive intel operatives is Facebook, which lends itself to the honey trap technique. The Internet has made it easier for this social engineering technique to work because instances of men and women meeting each other virtually are so common. A skilled intel operative can then seduce secrets out of the victims, who are usually men, but women have been entrapped as well. Since Internet access via cell phones became so common in Asia since 2010 the “virtual honey trap” has become more popular in many parts of the world. By “virtual” is meant that military men 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 well-publicized and embarrassing Internet honey trap incidents, 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 that forbade having cell phones in areas where classified documents or activities were present, were more strictly enforced. This forced spy recruiters to work harder to identify military people worth going after and developing more effective entrapment scripts and strategies. Officers, especially those with access to highly sensitive information, were warned about this vulnerability and these officers became more difficult to entrap. That was apparently the other reason for shifting the honey trap operations to more vulnerable enlisted troops or, in the case of the corporal, having Pakistani operatives prepared to go after any soldier they encounter even if they were seeking a specific officer.
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.
Until late 2018 it was unclear if Pakistan honey trap operatives had purposely turned their attention to lower ranking personnel because officers and NCOs with access to higher level secrets were now on the alert for this sort of thing. It was clear that Indian media was able and eager to publicize these incidents, unlike Pakistan and China where the government has more control over what appears in the media. That can be seen in how honey trap incidents involving Taiwan, South Korea or Japan get noted in the free press of those countries but not in China, where there are known to have been cases of officers and officials snagged in a honey trap that the Chinese government prefers to remain quiet about.
India and Pakistan are a special case. 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 Indian. 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. But these techniques were also used against 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 the information was literally phoned in using hard-to-trace SIM card 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.
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 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 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 smartphones and regularly access the Internet via those devices.