NATO Troops Were Located, Tricked Into Disobeying Orders in Research Experiment

A U.S. Army soldier takes a selfie during a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter flight over the Black Sea, June 30, 2017 near Constanta, Romania. (U.S. Army photo/William B. King)
A U.S. Army soldier takes a selfie during a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter flight over the Black Sea, June 30, 2017 near Constanta, Romania. (U.S. Army photo/William B. King)

Enemies can use social media to not only inexpensively find and target NATO forces but manipulate them, new research has found.

Researchers with NATO's Strategic Communications Center of Excellence used open-source data -- primarily social media -- to identify 150 soldiers, locate multiple battalions, track troop movements, and even persuade service members to leave their posts and engage in other "undesirable behavior" during a military exercise, Wired reported on Monday, citing a StratCom report.

And they did it for only $60, demonstrating how easy it is for an aggressor to target NATO with data available online.

The researchers -- the "red team" in the exercise -- used Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other popular social-media sites to find valuable information, particularly exploitable information, "like a serviceman having a wife and also being on dating apps," Nora Biteniece, a researcher behind the project, told Wired. It was unclear which forces were targeted.

"Every person has a button. For somebody there's a financial issue, for somebody it's a very appealing date, for somebody it's a family thing," Janis Sarts, the director of NATO's StratCom, told Wired. "It's varied, but everybody has a button. The point is what's openly available online is sufficient to know what that is."

Russia, NATO's primary adversary, is particularly skilled at this type of information warfare, which has shown up in Ukraine.

"The Russians are adept at identifying Ukrainian positions by their electrometric signatures," US Army Col. Liam Collins wrote in Army Magazine last summer.

"In one tactic, soldiers receive texts telling them they are 'surrounded and abandoned.' Minutes later, their families receive a text stating, 'Your son is killed in action,' which often prompts a call or text to the soldiers," he wrote. "Minutes later, soldiers receive another message telling them to 'retreat and live,' followed by an artillery strike to the location where a large group of cellphones was detected."

The Wall Street Journal reported in 2017 that Russians were hacking the cellphones of NATO soldiers "to gain operational information, gauge troop strength and intimidate soldiers." The situation got so bad that Estonian troops were forced by their superior officers to jump in a lake to enforce a strict "no smartphones" policy, the report said.

The Russians are trying to better control how their troops use social media, as online activity has threatened to give away troops' positions or disclose involvement in questionable or problematic operations, Reuters reported last week.

For instance, an investigative-journalism website cited social-media posts in reports saying Russia was involved in shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in 2014, according to Reuters.

As social networks have also offered insight into Russian activities in Syria and elsewhere, Russia is attempting to legislatively bar troops from sharing information online, Reuters reported.

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