Intelligence: Digital Photos Never Die

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February 5, 2017: For Russian security officials’ cell phones and social networks are again proving to be major problem when it comes to keeping certain facts out of the news. The latest example is the effort to conceal the movements of elite Russian troops between Ukraine and Syria. A recent example is members of the 137th Guards Airborne Regiment who were mourning the recent deaths of three of their own in Syria. Part of this effort included messages and photos posted online. Comparing this to earlier postings it confirmed that the 137th had indeed been shifted from Ukraine to Syria and was experiencing more combat there than they had in eastern Ukraine.

The Russians also got bit by this intelligence vulnerability in 2015 as more Russian troops and heavy weapons began showing up in Syria. At first the Russians tried to deny it, but they were done in by their own troops posting (on Russian social networks) photos of their presence in (and travel to) Syria. The Russian censors got most of those posts removed but not before they were seen by Western media and intelligence agencies and filed away. All this was good news for the Western intel people and bad news for their Russian counterparts. This sort of thing has been going on since the late 1990s and despite increasingly strenuous efforts to get the troops to be discreet there are always enough who disobey to give the real or potential enemy what they are looking for.

All this is yet another side effect of cellphone cameras, which have become a major source of military intelligence and this is especially true with counter-terrorism operations. For example in mid-2015 the United States revealed how a picture an Islamic terrorist took of himself with his cellphone (a selfie) revealed the location of an ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) headquarters, which was promptly bombed. Such incidents are more common with poorly trained irregulars, but even well trained troops have problems with “cellphone discipline”. This problem is a 21st century one and it has been getting worse.

Incorporating cameras into cell phones first showed up in 2000 and the practice quickly spread. This proved to be very popular and as such phones became cheaper, and their cameras more capable, military intelligence agencies warned that troops were taking a lot of pictures, especially when in combat zones. The big problem was that the troops were post those photos online. This was leading to a lot of pictures going public that could reveal military secrets. Efforts to ban troop use of cellphones in combat zones or inside classified areas had some success, but that only reduced the flood of useful (to intelligence experts) cellphone photos. It has proved nearly impossible to eliminate the problem. This became a major problem because of improved technology. This happened because cellphone networks entered the 3rd generation (3G) about the same time cellphone cameras were introduced it became very easy to quickly distribute pictures. The 3G networks enabled cellphone users to take photos and immediately send them to someone else, or post them to a website. By 2010 social networks were growing in popularity and cellphone users competed to take and post photos of all sorts of things, often getting newsworthy photos into circulation well before the traditional media. Cellphones with 3G capabilities became so cheap that even many Islamic terrorists and most military personnel had them.

No country is immune to the problem. Israel, with the highest proportion of Internet savvy people in the world continues to have the problem because so many of their troops on active duty are actually reservists called up for the normal (but infrequent) bit of active duty. Changing cell phone and social network habits isn’t easy, despite the risk of getting caught and punished (often spending a week or two in jail, plus the bad publicity). China tried to ban all cell phones for troops on active duty outside their base. It worked for a bit and then it didn’t. Some troops knew better but found ways to post photos anonymously. Even the revelations that troops have been killed because of posting certain pictures to the web has not reduced the number of military people doing it. As the cell phone use spreads so do the security problems and while the tech keeps getting better, solutions to the security problems do not.

 

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