How India can deal with an age-old spy craft that has been reinvented for the digital age
In June, it was discovered that a Pakistani spy going by the Facebook name “Sejal Kapoor” had hacked into the computer systems of more than 98 personnel of various defence forces, including the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force, between 2015 and 2018. “Sejal” had lured these personnel (mostly men) by using the oldest trick in the book — honey traps — served with a new-age digital twist. She showed them videos and pictures via a malware originating from West Asia.
Amongst other things, classified details of the BrahMos missile program me were leaked to Pakistan.
Two viruses, Whisper and GravityRAT, were used with more than 25 Internet addresses to mask her actual identity.
Malware is short for malicious software. It is designed to either gain access to or damage someone’s computer network. For example, ransomware is a kind of malware. Compared to traditional methods of honey trapping, this operation was swift, clean, and without any physical risk to the enemy. Moreover, unlike physical affairs, this one was scalable — “Sejal” managed to lure multiple targets simultaneously.
The Military Intelligence wing together with the U.P. Anti Terrorist Squad cracked the “Sejal” case leading to the arrest of BrahMos senior engineer, Nishant Agarwal.
There is no estimate of how many more are yet to be exposed, since malware can lie dormant for months or years before being detected. To give an idea of the danger, Facebook admitted that up to 270 million of its accounts are fake. These are mostly bots or honey traps.
History of honey traps
In the world of intelligence, information is the principal currency. Sex, or the promise of it, has always been an enigmatic subject. For millennia, spies across the world have used sex to encircle people and get access to valuable information. Some years ago, MI5 released a memo warning British banks and businesses against the threat of Chinese ‘sexpionage’. During World War II, Salon Kitty, a Berlin brothel, was used by the German intelligence service for espionage. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, East Germany recruited men to seduce women in important positions in West Germany. The story of such ‘Stasi Romeos’ is well documented in Marianne Quoirin’s book, Agentinnen aus Liebe (The Spies Who Did It For Love). By some accounts, the Soviet Union had a school called State School 4 in Kazan, south east of Moscow, which was used to train officers in the art of honey trapping.
Today, the nature of honey trapping has changed. With all aspects of our life turning virtual, from shopping to dating, it was only natural that the art of honey trapping too would turn digital. There are two ways of entrapping someone online. The first is via a social media profile, by infecting their lives and devices. The second is to find someone on adult sites and inject malware into their phones and computers. According to reports, three of the world’s 20 most visited websites are pornographic-related sites. It is important to note that 25% of all Android malware is porn-related. A 2017 study found that a hacker collective known as KovCoreG had been targeting millions of users of the site PornHub, tricking them into installing viruses on their computers. Such an effort can lead to long periods of blackmail and information-sharing; sometimes it is a one-off intelligence grab. It is also important to note that women are as vulnerable to the same hacks as men in honey trapping.
What is the modus operandi for honey-trapping people? According to a report, a young and pretty woman may ‘like’ the photographs posted by a soldier on social media and leave a comment saying something like, “Wow, Jai Hind!” or “Thank you for keeping us safe”. The conversation eventually moves to intimate messages over WhatsApp. It turns out later that this online patriot woman is actually a spy looking to extract valuable information through blackmail.
Cracking the whip
So, what is India doing about this? In February this year, in a written response to a question in the Rajya Sabha, Minister of State for Defence Subhash Bhamre said the Army reported two cases of honey-trapping in 2015 and another two in 2017. The Indian Air Force reported one case in 2015, while the Navy did not report any. As a result, advisories were issued. The military intelligence is carrying out selective checks on phones, laptops and desktops of officers and soldiers in sensitive areas, sources say. The Army has described honey-trap cases as a weapon of hybrid warfare being waged by the enemy across the borders. Army Chief General Bipin Rawat has cracked the whip on social media usage. A list of dos and don’ts have been prepared. An information warfare team is being set up at the Army headquarters. Suspected Twitter handles and Facebook accounts have also been identified.
What India can do
There are other countermeasures that must be employed. For example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation runs fake child pornographic websites to catch offenders of the same crime. Other measures that India could take include investing in the latest technologies for early and better detection of viruses; conducting frequent workshops to sensitise defence personnel against cyber risks; conducting timely reviews and audits of all devices; developing better protocols in the event of contamination; developing a methodology to embed dormant malware in all sensitive data and devices which will be able to track the bad actors and destroy the documents with a programmed kill switch; and developing a doctrine to hit back. The Defence Cyber Agency should be leveraged towards this end. Besides this, best cyber practices must be built amongst fresh recruits.
From killer drones to cyberattacks, modern warfare is becoming more and more faceless. Moreover, unlike conventional warfare, the cost and barrier to entry into enemy territory has gone down drastically. Malware is readily available on the darknet to anyone with a cryptocurrency wallet. So, every keyboard is practically a weapon.
In this information age, the enemy will be relentless and continue to invest and recruit heavily in these methods. India needs to act fast to deter such threats.
Vinayak Dalmia is a lawyer and writer. He is an expert on issues of national security, technology, geopolitics & foreign affairs. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
East German spies
Spies for East Germany were called "Romeos" created by Markus Wolf, the former head of East Germany's foreign intelligence service the Stasi. Around 40 women were prosecuted for espionage in the Federal Republic of Germany. Some of the victims included Helen Anderson working at the US Army Base in West Berlin and Gabriele Albin who worked at the US Embassy in Bonn Germany.
Notable individuals and events
Kursk Nightingale – Russia
Nadezhda Plevitskaya, a former opera singer known as the "Kursk Nightingale" before the Russian Civil War, found herself living without her former luxuries following the Bolshevik Revolution. The Cheka recruited Plevitskaya through her lust for money. "Traveling throughout the white-held areas, she entertained the troops at free concerts, at the same time ingratiating herself with anti-Bolshevik leaders who had long admired the 'Kursk nightingale.' In the process, she began to collect interesting intelligence tidbits from some of the more indiscreet Whites (including those she slept with to pry even more information).":38 However, Plevitskaya was captured by the Whites after intercepting some of her messages to the Cheka and ordered to be executed by firing squad. Nikolai Skoblin, then a young White cavalry officer and a megalomaniac obsessed with the idea of recreating the "Holy Russia," a mythical land that existed before the time of the Tsars, saw Plevitskaya refuse a blindfold before her execution. Motivated by her beauty and courage, Skoblin rode up, ordered the firing squad not to fire, and released her in his custody. Then the Cheka used Plevitskaya to recruit Skoblin, and both got married (with Vassileivna's then-husband understandingly serving as Best Man in the wedding) and moved to Paris, working for the Cheka among the Russian Exile Movement.:37–42
Cynthia – Britain
Amy Thorpe Pack was an American who married a senior British diplomat and began extramarital affairs upon finding her marriage passionless. She volunteered her services to MI6 while living with her husband in Warsaw in 1937. In Warsaw, she seduced a Polish Foreign Ministry Official eliciting from him Poland's plans regarding how to deal with Hitler and Stalin. Following this, she learned from another Polish official that some Polish Mathematicians had started cracking the German Enigma Ciphers. Later, in Czechoslovakia, she discovered the German plans to invade Czechoslovakia. After a colorless stint of boredom at a posting in Santiago, Chile, Pack separated from her husband and went to New York City in 1941, when William Stephenson, then an MI6 Chief of Station, contacted her and asked her to infiltrate embassies in Washington, D.C. Realizing her motivation was a lust for danger and excitement, Stephenson gave her the code name Cynthia, after a long-lost love. Pack then seduced the chief of station for Italian military intelligence and acquired the Italian navy cipher. Beginning in early 1942, Pack posed as a pro-Vichy journalist and got Charles Brousse, the Vichy French embassy's press attaché and a Vichy politician, to fall in love with her and agree to work as an OSS asset. In a near six-hour night burglary operation, Pack and Brousse let an OSS safecracker into the embassy to carry away the Vichy code books for photographing, and at one point Pack undressed to cover for the operation by deceiving a suspicious night guard. After the operation for the Vichy codes, Pack retired from espionage because she fell in love with Brousse.:107–111
Commander Courtney Affair – Soviet Union
Commander Anthony Courtney was a "tough and opinionated former naval officer and Member of Parliament who denounced the government of the day and the Foreign Office for softness in permitting Soviet and Iron Curtain diplomats to abuse their privileges for espionage purposes." The Commander spoke fluent Russian and in 1961 he went to bed with his Intourist guide, Zinaida Grigorievna Volkova, who was in fact a regular KGB seductress, and KGB photographers captured it. The KGB tried to blackmail Courtney into ending his Parliamentary tirades, though he refused, and they circulated the pictures to other members of parliament and business associates. Furthermore, Private Eye, a London satirical journal, obtained the photos and published them. Courtney lost his seat in the following election.:33–35
Ambassador Dejean Affair – Soviet Union
Maurice Dejean, the former French ambassador to the Soviet Union, was an old friend with close connections to President De Gaulle, and he had a fondness for women. The KGB took advantage of this and set up Dejean first with Lydia Khovanskaya, a divorcee who spoke French, and later Larisa Kronberg-Sobolevskaya, an actress. While Dejean was with Larisa, her pretend husband returned home, as staged, from a geological expedition in Siberia, and beat Dejean, but allowed him to leave upon Larisa's pleading. Dejean went to a Soviet friend, who unbeknownst to him worked for the KGB, to quiet the affair. The Soviets took no immediate action, but preferred to hold their operation as leverage just in case to keep the French ambassador within their sway. Similar KGB honey traps on Dejean's wife, Marie-Claire, were unsuccessful. President De Gaulle and the French found out about the affair from British intelligence, who in turn learned of it from Yuri Krotkov, a defector. Krotkov defected in 1963 after a French Air Force attaché, Colonel Louis Guibard, shot himself when the KGB showed him pictures they took of his affair with a Russian woman and presented him with the choice of either exposure or collaboration.:36–37
Sir Geoffrey and Galya – Soviet Union
Sir Geoffrey Harrison, British Ambassador to Moscow, was the target of a KGB blackmail attempt in 1968, when they placed an attractive maid named Galya in the diplomatic mission. Sir Geoffrey fell for the honey trap, and Galya told him that pictures had been taken and that he would be exposed unless he provided information to the KGB. The scandal broke, but Sir Geoffrey had no action taken against him and he retired on full pension.:73
KGB break-in at Swedish Embassy in Moscow – Soviet Union
Yuri Nosenko, a Soviet defector to the West, detailed the use of a honey trap when the KGB launched a night operation to raid the Swedish Embassy in Moscow with a twelve-strong crew of safe-pickers and break-in experts. According to Nosenko, a female KGB seductress lured away the embassy's night watchman and another agent distracted a guard dog by feeding it meat.:124–125
Donald Maclean – Soviet Union
Donald Duart Maclean was a British diplomat who spied for the Soviet Union mostly out of love for it, and he never received pay, although did get a KGB pension. However, to make sure that Maclean would not so easily double-cross the Soviets, they had Guy Burgess, another British homosexual spying for the Soviets, take photos of Maclean in bed with another man during an orgy.:111
William Vassall – Soviet Union
William John Vassall was an openly gay man who boasted that men said he had "come to bed eyes," and in 1954, as a clerk in the office of the British naval attaché, Vassall went to Moscow. A Polish clerk from the embassy brought Vassall to a party with lots of alcohol, and he became involved in homosexual activity. Soon, Vassall had been blackmailed and was stealing classified information for the Soviets.:172
American use of sexpionage
The Former Assistant FBI Director William C. Sullivan in testimony before the Church Committee on 1 November 1975 stated: "The use of sex is "a common practice among intelligence services all over the world. This is a tough dirty business. We have used that technique against the Soviets. They have used it against us."
Aleksandr Ogorodnik, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs' planning department was Codenamed TRIGON by the Central Intelligence Agency dated a Spanish woman who was recruited by the CIA. In 1973 she persuaded him to supply the CIA with information.
Spies mistaken as ravens
A male spy with a promiscuous lifestyle is not necessarily a professional raven. For example, Duško Popov was a double agent working for MI5 and feeding information to the Abwehr in World War II. He came from a moderately wealthy Yugoslavian family, and had a taste for expensive restaurants, women, and nightclubs. MI5 code-named him TRICYCLE for his habit of taking two women to bed at the same time. Despite being seen as an inspiration for James Bond, Popov was never a raven, but instead used supposed commercial connections to feed faked intelligence to the Nazis.:98–102
Agent falling for their mission partner
One instance of sex or intimacy which can happen during espionage is when an agent falls for his or her partner. In one example, an Israeli "champagne spy," Wolfgang Lotz, who pretended to be a former Afrika Corps vet, covered himself deep in German social circles in Egypt prior to the Six-Day War, and fell in love with his fake "German" wife, who converted to Judaism. Lotz divorced his real wife, who was Israeli, for his partner.:151
Sexpionage in popular culture
James Bond is a fictional character depicted as a raven; his parodical counterpart Austin Powers also uses sexpionage to elicit information. A 1987 espionage-themed American pornographic film featuring Dana Dylan, Rachel Ashley, and Britt Morgan was titled "Sexpionage." In the 2014 film The Interview, use of a swallow is somewhat colloquially referred to as "honeypotting," and use of a raven is referred to as "honeydicking."
The 2018 film Red Sparrow shows a modern version of sexpionage.