In August of 2017, the Twitter feed @Mil_Radar posted the following, “Summary of NATO Maritime Patrol Aircraft tracking something travelling south 14AUG17-28AUG17.” With this amateur analysis segment a graphic of a multinational maritime patrol operation covering the span of 14 days, four air fields, and patrol aircraft from four different nations also was posted. While it is unclear the ultimate identity and intentions of the account, it displays an ability to track worldwide multinational military air operations at a level just below that of full-time intelligence staffs.
It is clear that social media technology can be weaponized at a faster and more alarming rate than simple “fence spotters” of years past. Social media is disrupting the world of intelligence, information gathering, counterintelligence, and operational security by making information and analysis readily accessible to everyone from amateurs to non-state adversaries and even nation-state adversaries.
Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election highlights the effective and bold uses of foreign social media manipulation against the United States, and the U.S. government and American people still do not understand the full scope and extent of that meddling. Almost as famous, Islamic extremists (including ISIS) deftly have exploited Twitter and other social media platforms to radicalize persons from afar and provide instructions in weapons manufacturing and tactics. Beyond the headline-grabbing examples are the day-to-day monitoring and exploitation of U.S. and allied military movements and operations by a variety of governments and individuals with a vested interest in minimizing or eliminating the edge that operational security (OpSec) affords U.S. and other allied forces.
While it is unclear the exact methods @MilRadar used to track maritime patrol aircraft flights, it is possible to monitor civil identification friend or foe (IFF), radio transmissions, air traffic control radars, coastal radars, and even more advanced methods of triangulation. While the fundamentals of these methods are beyond the scope of this contribution, the methods and technology available to the average civilian to track and monitor U.S. military forces have become more numerous and readily accessible in recent years.
Where aircraft monitoring becomes problematic is that operational aircraft need to maintain a level of secrecy in operations to gain an edge on forces they are watching or soon-to-be-attacked enemies. In the past, this could be accomplished by ceasing air-traffic-control-monitoring services and assuming own risk for aircraft avoidance in international waters or air space. Despite mitigation steps taken by U.S. and allied aviation forces (which have been alerted to this OpSec threat), the website continues to track and publicize air operations.
The idea of arm-chair intelligence officers brings us to the heart of the issue—the loss of advantage the United States has maintained for decades through expensive forward positioning of forces and intelligence assets at bases in other countries and working in partnerships. Since World War II, the U.S. military safely could assume that it could react to a crisis or military action anywhere in the world, and few other nations would be aware of that action unless the United States wanted them to know. The interconnected group of social media analysts and foreign intelligence agencies using their information has diminished this advantage with little investment in expensive sensors or command, control, communications, and computers.
Another example of social media data supplementing the intelligence resources of non-U.S. actors can be seen by the exploitation of the fitness app Strava. Despite its stated intent to create a worldwide heat map of runners it also created a pattern-of-life map of deployed U.S. service members at overseas bases, even in combat zones. This vulnerability was not discovered by any publicly published initiative by any government, but on Twitter by user Nathan Russer (@Nrg8000) who claimed, “Strava released their global heatmap. 13 trillion GPS points from their users (turning off data sharing is an option). . . . It looks very pretty, but not amazing for Op-Sec. US bases are clearly identifiable and mapable.” While U.S. Central Command has directed soldiers who may be using the app to turn off data sharing while using it, the damage has been done. Outlines and data on hundreds of U.S. bases were made available by a single user with access to the Internet and a little creativity.
Not surprisingly, however, it is not just the United States that finds itself vulnerable to publicly available data viewed on social media. Since Russia began military operations in Ukraine to annex the Crimean Peninsula, its stance of innocence to the world continuously is undermined by social media evidence provided by its own troops. The report “Hiding in Plain Sight: Putin's War in Ukraine,” published by the Atlantic Council, examines multiple sources of available open-source information, including social media, to prove Russia’s involvement. The report explains, “All the sources used in this report are publically available to anyone with access to the Internet, and the techniques used are documented throughout. The aspect of Russian involvement in Ukraine with the widest breadth of open-source information is the movement of heavy military equipment across the border, with hundreds of videos and photographs uploaded by ordinary Russians and Ukrainians who have witnessed direct Russian support of the hostilities in eastern Ukraine.” Even more remarkably the report explains how the use of geotagging, correlating coordinates in imagery with Google Earth, allowed the authors to pinpoint the location of Russian troops and heavy armament. While not amateurs, the Atlantic Council is highlighting techniques that amateurs could use to track U.S. and allied military forces.
The U.S. military need not fear social media nor the ways it can be exploited, but it must be aware of them. The military should factor adversary exploitation of social media into its 21st-century OpSec planning. In addition, U.S. intelligence services should embrace the opportunities social media tools can present for intelligence gathering and analysis against the nation’s adversaries.
Lieutenant O’Bannon is a naval flight officer and mission commander who has flown both P-3C Orion and P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. He was commissioned in 2010 through the ROTC program at the University of San Diego. He currently is stationed at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy, where he is the Public Affairs and Assistant Exercises officer on the staff of Commander, Task Force 67.
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