Safeguarding the digital frontier
The Indian Army has banned its personnel from using 89 different apps due to a variety of security reasons. While it does follow the Indian Government's ban on 59 Chinese apps, this is not simply the Army following in line. For one, the Army has banned many apps that are not of Chinese origin like Truecaller and Facebook. Also worth noting is that the Armed Forces considering bans on social media is not new and has been an urgent security issue for quite some time.
Take for instance the case of 13 Indian Navy personnel apprehended earlier this year passing sensitive information to foreign spies on social networking sites. It was stated that these 13 Navy personnel had been allured by a honey trapping scheme. Facebook and Tinder have been stated as being the most common platforms to bring such honey trapping schemes into effect. After the Navy managed to clamp down on this plot, it banned any of its personnel from using social media. While the Army and Air Force were also considering a similar ban, they ultimately did not enforce it. Thus, the ban of the 89 apps that is now enacted can be seen as an overdue security measure that has been pushed to a position of absolute necessity by the present border tensions with China.
Apps are generally more of a security risk than most people credit them as being. They record and share information, with or without the user's consent. While awareness regarding data collection and where it is being stored is now part of public discourse, the relationship between the internet and espionage is somewhat old. As such, many nations have elected to ban social media and other apps for use by their military personnel. In 2019, the Russian Parliament voted to ban its soldiers from using phones that can take pictures, record videos or access the internet. It was presumed that this ban came after several instances of Russian servicemen inadvertently revealing the presence of the Russian Military in regions where they officially were not supposed to be operating. US Military faced similar headaches in regard to a fitness app called Strava that seemed to highlight the exercise routes of military personnel in bases across the world. The so-called 'heatmap' could be used in conjunction with Google Earth to extrapolate a great deal of information about soldier movements and activities in such bases. The US chose not to ultimately impose blanket restrictions like Russia did on the use of apps, smartphones and social media but it has tightened up its guidelines for their use. More recently, Tik Tok was banned by the US Military for use by any of its personnel.
Thus, the security risks in allowing unrestricted access to these apps and, in return, allowing these apps unrestricted access as regards the military, are clear. Soldiers do indeed deserve the same liberties as any of us in enjoying social media and making use of something as basic to modern life as smartphones but no one can argue that they must inherently accept certain hardships for the security of the nation. In the digital age, battles are rarely fought on a single front. The enemy can make much headway on the digital front, long before it takes even a single step for a physical confrontation. A blanket ban is unnecessary, however, and details of the ban can be finessed later. This is hardly a one-time thing and will likely be a continuing dilemma. Access to digital space and national security will likely come to confrontation many times in the future and there will be no clear solution. Going low tech will likely not be a viable option as there are significant downsides to the approach. After the social media ban this year, many Indian Navy personnel started using older phones with 2G connectivity but experts opined that such devices can be intercepted more easily. A technological solution is thus required in the long term, one specifically catering to the needs of the Armed Forces.