Experts say social media has made it easier and less risky for spies to reach out to targets and extract information, because they are always operating from a distance. (Illustration by Suneesh K.)
If Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) or another hostile foreign agency wants to get into the country’s classified underbelly today – the armed forces, defence research and space organizations – the online charms of a femme fatale, it seems, can produce astonishing results.
On June 17, a contractual employee of the Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL) in Hyderabad was held for passing confidential information on India’s missile programme to an alleged ISI operative in Pakistan through social media. The 29-year-old accused, identified as Dukka Mallikarjuna Reddy alias Arjun Bittu, was arrested from his home in Hyderabad.
Cyber sleuths monitoring social media in the last 20 months or so, had come across unusually heavy documentation emanating from Reddy’s Facebook account – information that was not the usual social chatter. Instead, there were details of classified advanced naval system programmes from the defence lab’s RCI complex in Balapur, Hyderabad, where the accused was posted.
That was enough to set off alarm bells in the security establishment – alarm bells, which even Reddy caught on to, albeit too late.
He had proudly updated his job status with DRDL on Facebook in , he was contacted by an alleged ISI handler, a silver-tongued woman, Natasha Rao, who introduced herself as a UK Defence Journal employee whose father had served in the Indian Air Force before relocating to the United Kingdom.
Thereafter, say investigators, it did not take much to lure Reddy. In the months that followed, Reddy was besotted by promises of marriage and undying love. Sleuths believe the female handler succeeded in eeking out «highly secured and confidential information of DRDL-RCI Complex through the social media».
Police said that Reddy kept transferring confidential defence details to the ISI handler until e suspicious when Natasha changed her Facebook profile name to Simran Chopra and declined to take his messages, all too suddenly.
During the probe, the police found that Natasha had also sought Reddy’s bank account details and were trying to ascertain if money had been transferred to the account or not. His two mobile phones, a SIM card, and a laptop have been seized by security agencies.
To be sure, the pejoratively named honeytraps – or the use of sexuality, sex or the promise of sex or a romantic relationship for espionage – aren’t new. There are fabulously documented examples of so-called femme fatales – the most prominent one being Dutch exotic dancer Mata Hari or Margaretha Zelle. What’s newer, though, is the use of social media to set and execute these traps.
The arrival of social media – particularly Facebook alua, WhatsApp, and Instagram – has accentuated the curve. Earlier, while it would be troublesome, not to mention risky, to bait a potential informer or spy, the arrival of these long-distance electronic linkages has eased matters to a very significant degree.
«It is a western habit that India is picking up,” former RAW chief A.S. Dulat, told Moneycontrol. RAW or the Research and Analysis Wing is India’s premium intelligence agency.
** In , in a joint operation of the Delhi Police crime branch and military intelligence, an Indian Air Force airman was arrested for espionage at Dhaula Kuan, close to the Delhi Cantonment. Devendra Sharma, posted at the records office in New Delhi, was nabbed while allegedly attempting to gather sensitive information about the armed forces. The arrest came after an investigation revealed that the Kanpur resident was honey-trapped on Facebook and found to be passing on information to the ISI.