May 27, 2020:
In early May Russia enacted yet another law seeking to prevent military personnel from posting information on the Internet that reveals what the troops are up to, where they are, and most importantly contradicts what the government says is going on. The new rules go even further, banning military personnel from ever revealing on the Internet that they are, or were, in the military. There’s more with a ban on troops possessing information storage devices like USB drives, memory cards or portable hard drives. Also banned are any devices that capture and store information electronically. Also banned are any electronic devices that provide information on where the troops are or were. This specifically includes geolocation capabilities present in so many consumer electronics. This sort of thing has been a problem wherever troops are stationed and especially those in foreign combat zones like Ukraine, Syria, Libya and elsewhere in Africa. that This is not the first time Russia, and many other nations, have passed laws or issued regulations to restrict the troops from using their cell phones in ways that reveal information via the Internet and won’t be the last.
It’s not just a Russian problem, although because of the Russian tradition of strictly enforced government secrecy, Russian officials have had the most problems with the universally popular habit, especially among younger men and women, to “share” on the Internet. Cell phones and social media are popular among young users everywhere and it does not matter what the users do for a living. Other countries have handled the problem by pointing out how careless cell phone use can get you or your fellow troops killed. It’s the old World War (both of them) admonition that “the enemy is listening.” With cell phones, the enemy is not just listening but now seeing video of troops describing what they are up to. Even if the troops do not say where they are, intelligence agencies can usually figure it out.
This is the latest of several Russian efforts to eliminate this problem and probably won’t be the last. This is made clear by the fact that the latest prohibitions are described as “violations” and not treason or some other transgression leading to prison or execution. The wording of these new rules indicates that leaders are aware that it is a problem with officers and government workers in general and that strict enforcement is going to be difficult and potentially bad for morale and recruiting. Russia no longer depends on conscription to obtain people for military service. The military wants more career personnel and the main difficulty in obtaining them is not just money, but the bad reputation the Russian military has as a place to work. The new electronic media rules reinforce those perceptions. Worse, the military has been issuing new, and more restrictive media use regulations. So far none have worked as intended.
In early 2018 Russian military personnel in Syria were ordered to stop using smartphones and to replace them as soon as possible with older models that lack GPS, high speeds and other features that are used by many commercial UAVs and quadcopters. The frequencies used by smartphones were being jammed around Russian bases in Syria as part of defensive measures against Islamic terrorist quad copters carrying explosives to be used for mass attacks. It was believed that this would also prevent Russian personnel from posting military information on the Internet. It didn’t. The jamming couldn’t be maintained all the time because it interfered with other military and commercial electronics. Earlier bans on military personnel posting anything on social media did not work either because friends and family would post items sent to them via email. It happens everywhere. Troops from America, Israel, China, India and even Islamic terrorists partake in the Internet community.
In 2017 Russian security officials complained that cell phones and social networks were proving to be a major problem when it came to keeping certain facts out of the news. Back then the example cited was the government effort to conceal the movements of elite Russian troops between Ukraine and Syria. One example involved members of the 137th Guards Airborne Regiment mourning the recent deaths of three of their own in Syria. Part of this memorial 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 would 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, and 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. This can sometimes mean 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 cell phone use spreads so do the security problems and while the tech keeps getting better, solutions to the security problems do not.