Better cyber-hygiene can foil tech espionage: Defence experts

New Delhi, Nov 15 (IANS) The Indian Army’s recent directive to its personnel in critical posts to deactivate their Facebook accounts and not share official information on WhatsApp might only partly address the challenges posed by tech-based espionage activities, experts said here on Friday.

On the contrary, better education and training in social media usage, greater stress on switching over to homemade software and hardware, and adoption of best practices in cyber-hygiene, in line with advanced militaries across the globe, can go a long way in thwarting attempts at hacking to steal sensitive information, experts told IANS.

In addition, defence forces also face challenges of security vulnerabilities from spyware like Pegasus, which can track calls and read messages, if physically installed on smartphones, apart from phishing and attempts of ‘honeytrapping’.

Earlier this month, two soldiers of the Indian Army were held in a case of ‘honeytrapping’ by the intelligence wing of Rajasthan Police allegedly for sharing sensitive information with Facebook user ‘Sheerat’.

“Social media has become so embedded into our lives that it is difficult to restrain anyone from its use. The answer does not lie in banning the use of Facebook and WhatsApp alone. The soldiers can easily shift to other social media platforms like Telegram. Moreover, there are thousands of other apps available for everyday use. These apps have the threat potential to be used for hacking into a smartphone. The answer lies in better training in cybe- hygiene and data privacy that would enable a user to take a call on what not to post, what to post and even avoid phishing,” former Northern Army Commander, Lt Gen D.S. Hooda (retd) told IANS.

Experts also believe that China poses the most imminent threat to India in hacking sensitive data in possession of defence forces through the use of malware and spyware installed on cheap smartphones. “There should be more emphasis on usage of indigenously developed software and hardware,” added Hooda.

China itself had taken a lead in avoiding social media misuse by its armed forces personnel when it directed for the installation of special software on People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers to prevent hacking.

“All devices used by PLA soldiers should be installed with special software created by the army’s IT experts and domestic mobile operators, so their activities can be closely monitored by the army’s newly established internet administration centres,” the Hong Kong-based English daily South China Morning Post reported in April 2016, quoting the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily.

“The software aims to filter all ‘unhealthy and negative messages’ that could harm the army’s political spirit and morale, curb access to sensitive information that might lead to leaking of military intelligence,” the People’s Daily report said. It also tracks off-duty officers in case they visit ‘unwanted places’,” the South China Morning Post further reported.

However, the decision to ban the use of social media to share “official information” has been seen as a step in the right direction by defence experts.

“It is possible for inimical elements to open fictitious accounts to communicate with those privy to sensitive official information. It is possible for data to be extracted from Chinese smartphones. Though communicating with the use of social media platforms cannot be stopped, sharing of official information through these channels should be put to an end,” said former Director-General of Information Systems, Army, Lt Gen Prakash Katoch (retd).

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