Adverse Impact of IMINT and OSINT on Pakistan-India Cyber CBMs

In 2014, Brigadier (Retired) Dr Tughral Yamin, a former Pakistan Army officer and Associate Dean at Centre for International Peace & Stability (CIPS) at the National University of Sciences and Technology, Islamabad authored a report on ‘Developing Information-space CBMs between Pakistan and India.’

In this seminal publication, Dr Yamin explains in detail the history and scope of Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) and how two of South Asia’s nuclear-armed yet contentious neighbours Pakistan and India can promote mutual trust through promotion of CBMs in the information space (alternatively, ‘cyberspace’). He also sheds light on uncontrolled hostile propaganda directed against both countries in the following words:

There have been agreements between Pakistan and India in the past to cease hostile propaganda against each other e.g. in the fall of 1974, the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan had exchanged letters agreeing to a cessation of hostile propaganda through radio broadcasts. This agreement came into force on October 21, 1974. Although this was never followed in letter and spirit, this concept can be extended to the social media, to avoid toxic fallouts from instances like a potentially damaging video clip going viral.”

While hostile propaganda in the general sense is a continuously-occurring phenomenon between both countries, Dr Yamin also looks into Military Cyber CBMs through intimation of red lines and encouraging de-escalation in the information-space. This includes mutual agreements to refrain from targeting each other’s critical information and intelligence infrastructures.

However, there is one aspect of Pak-India cyber engagement which emerged sometime in 2015 and has now assumed greater popularity: the unchecked, reckless tweeting of sensitive military information by sock-puppet (fake) accounts proclaiming to be IMINT and OSINT enthusiasts.

This trend has been in existence since more than a decade but in the specific Pak-India context, it began with tweets by a former Indian military intelligence Colonel who still uses open source satellite imagery to mark and publish IMINT pertaining to missile sites, ORBATs and other military installations for the general public. Pakistan and China are his countries of particular interest.

The casual sharing of IMINT and OSINT by untamed social media accounts in Pakistan and India directly impacts efforts of establishments in both countries to promote mutual trust in general and Cyber CBMs in particular.

Similarly, there are a horde of sock-puppet accounts based in India that have formed their own various packs or clusters and can be seen engaging with several serving and retried Indian military officers individually and also collectively. The behavioural analysis of these accounts’ public interactions suggests that the people operating at the back-end are either part of the military or have some insider sources privy to target entity coordinates that are not available anywhere on the World Wide Web.

Recently, accounts within Pakistan have also started to engage in IMINT and OSINT directed against Indian military interests including one actual defence analyst operating with her own name. While the quantum of aggressive IMINT and OSINT originating in India far outweighs that from Pakistan, the core concern is that aggressive social media posturing by such elements falls neither in the category of propaganda nor cyber-attacks. These behaviours can be collectively described as “social media intimidation” involving reckless publication of IMINT and OSINT.

The brazenness with which these Pakistani and Indian elements disregard military ethos, secrecy and generally-acceptable protocols of social media engagement is telling. Security establishments in both countries need to understand that escalatory dynamics are directly impacted by the activities of these accounts.

A practical manifestation of this was seen during the Pak-India standoff in February 2019 during which a horde of IMINT and OSINT accounts promoted war hysteria and encouraged citizens in both countries to be aware of each other’s weaknesses. The types of information posted online included sensitive flight routes/patterns, geo-marked troop deployments and other information which are generally undisclosed for the public at large. While some enthusiasts might have shared their technical findings for the sake of personal delight and community appreciation among open source military observers, the same data was grossly exploited for disinformation and propaganda by troll farms operating in both countries belonging to various political and social denominations.

In the absence of social media regulations or frameworks for responsible use, it is only logical that both nuclear-armed neighbours develop an exclusive bilateral mechanism.

Thus, while IMINT and OSINT are resourceful tools for intelligence analysis, their availability for the general populace especially charged-up citizens in Pakistan and India leads to chaos and commotion instead of prompting informed discussions. Some of the premium IMINT and OSINT products available for high-end consumers, even if non-governmental, is available for a fee to ensure that information of this nature does not become common knowledge, for the precise reason that intelligence from the security standpoint constitutes a part of what Max Scheler theorised as Herrschaftswissen i.e. restricted knowledge which is not fit for wider public consumption. Interestingly, some Indian scholars believe that the famed strategist Kautilya (Chanakya) may have also considered intelligence products as exclusive Herrschaftswissen.

There could be objections to the aforementioned arguments by proponents of Right to Information and free speech. Also, Twitter accounts that publish the sensitive information rely on freely-available public sources to process it into intelligence. It is this very stage of processing in which the minds behind these accounts apply their unique analytical abilities and share it for the public who, by principle, are not the intended recipients of that intelligence.

There are legitimate reasons why military and intelligence organisations’ activities are not performed before the public eye. As critical components of any nation state’s security apparatus, security organisations are entrusted in dealing with the murkier side of international relations which often involve back-channel talks.

The casual sharing of IMINT and OSINT by untamed social media accounts in Pakistan and India directly impacts efforts of establishments in both countries to promote mutual trust in general and Cyber CBMs in particular.

In lieu of Dr Yamin’s framework for Cyber CBMs, national security establishments of Pakistan and India should develop a back-channel through which information pertaining to such social media accounts based in either’s territory can be discreetly communicated so that follow-up efforts can be initiated accordingly.

Fundamentally, the prerogative for account suspension lies with the host social media platform. This prerogative is problematic in the South Asian context where multiple actors, maybe those based outside the region but claiming to be from either country (deceptive third actor), could provoke Pak-India hostilities through a few posts and tweets.

In the absence of social media regulations or frameworks for responsible use, it is only logical that both nuclear-armed neighbours develop an exclusive bilateral mechanism.

Zaki Khalid

Zaki Khalid

Zaki Khalid is a strategic analyst and freelance commentator based in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. His areas of interest include national security, geopolitics, cyberspace and maritime affairs. He is also the founder and editor of 'Pakistan Geostrategic Review (PGR)', an independent platform publishing a premium newsletter and podcasts on geostrategic developments. He can be reached on Twitter @misterzedpk.

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