Live locations of Indian Air Force (IAF) aircraft moving to combat the Pakistani airstrikes on the morning of 27 February were watched keenly by bloggers, aviation enthusiasts and a large number of people on social media.
These live movements were recorded by websites like www.flightradar24.com which provide real time tracking facilities for almost every flight in the world. Unfortunately, this site also showed where the Indian Air Force jets and choppers were moving, sparking speculation, interest and concern across the globe as India and Pakistan engaged in air clashes.
Some Twitter accounts too tweeted live locations of IAF aircraft avidly. Some of these are open source intelligence (OSINT) aviation enthusiasts, while others are just regular readers fascinated with the data provided by flight tracking websites.
The Lede spoke with a few of these account holders and asked whether what they were doing – tweeting live locations of IAF aircraft in a situation of rising military tensions – could compromise India’s national security in any manner.
The Handle: @GDarkconrad
Name: Manu Gomez
This Spanish aviation enthusiast has been an avid tweeter of screenshots of military flight movements across the globe. His was one of the most active handles today.
— Manu Gómez (@GDarkconrad) February 27, 2019
“Military planes can use an encrypted mode and we will not be able to see it, they just have to change the mode of the transponder. FR24 (Flight Radar 24) censored almost all military flights,” Gomez told The Lede.
“But do not blame me for that,” he argued. “I repeat again all the information is Open Source. I do not reveal any secret.”
Gomez added that he has been an open source aviation tracker for many years. “I’ve been doing it for many years and it’s the first time I have a problem. I’ve been cited as a source multiple times from Russia Today to The Guardian and I repeat it’s the first time I see myself in this problem,” he said.
Gomez also added – “I do not work for any government. I do not earn money with this. Even if you do not believe it, what I do is positive for many people who try to look for unbiased information. The whole community of AVGEEK (Aviation Geeks) and spotters, from Israel to Latin America through Russia and everyone knows me, I have no obscure intention. The last and most important – I never share judgments or biases I always share what I see, it is not my fault that other accounts or people or media fill in the empty spaces,” he said.
Gomez also said that when his tweets are used in a biased way, his work takes a dangerous note.
The Handle: @IntelCrab
Name: Justin Peden
According to the website www.intelcrab.com that the @IntelCrab account leads us to, it is “an online Twitter account which focuses heavily on the aggregation of open source information. Partnered with the fellow OSINT nerds over at Strategic Sentinel, the Intel Crab has become a household name for the collection and analyzation of some of the world’s most interesting phenomenon.”
This handle too was tweeting live locations of IAF aircraft.
Keeping a close eye on the C-17 skimming along the border. I wonder where he could be headed? pic.twitter.com/XAsXowGcAj
— ᴛʜᴇ ɪɴᴛᴇʟ ᴄʀᴀʙ (@IntelCrab) February 27, 2019
Justin Peden based in the US is the brain behind this open source analytics site and he spoke with The Lede and shared his views on his work and why he does it. He is a freelance analyst and contributor for @StrategicSentinel. “While it is true that these aircraft are being monitored, none of the aircraft shown via these monitoring websites are deemed ‘critical’,” offered Peden. “Combat aircraft do not appear, which from a strategic standpoint is imperative for the proper function of the IAF.” Peden added that the live flight tracking sites are not 100% reliable. “It is important to note the element time and latency play into the reporting of these so called military aircraft. While indeed it is true that aircraft can be monitored in real time, they are not solid objects, but rather always on the move.
While flight monitoring software (like FlightRadar24) does do an excellent job tracking these flights, it is not perfect, and does often lose the ability to track certain craft for minutes, even hours at a time,” he said. Peden though acknowledges that this is a hot potato subject and something that needs more discussion and consensus between the OSINT community and governments. “OSINT community has grown exponentially in the amount of data it has access to over the past couple of years, but never once has it eclipsed the basic intelligence gathering capabilities of any nation with a standing air force. As long as nothing illegal is being reported, and as long as information is not revealed in a way which poses an imminent threat to those involved, I see no issue in sharing said data in an appropriate manner,” he stated.
The Handle: @NavroopSingh_ Name: Navroop Singh
Delhi-based lawyer and author Navroop Singh had also tweeted out some of these live locations of IAF aircraft. Speaking to The Lede, Singh said that he had deleted all of the tweets which could possibly pose a threat to the Air Force. “Agreed, I have also got movements of troop movements as in videos,” said Singh to The Lede when asked about whether the live locations of IAF aircraft could pose a potential threat to national security. “I haven’t tweeted that (the videos). I understand the sensitivity of the situation even though it is open source. I have taken those RTs (retweets) off my TL (timeline). Nothing that can compromise anything. Always India First,” he said, with an emoji of an Indian flag at the end.
The Handle: @intellipus Name: Ronald Jessee
Ronald Jessee is a data researcher based in the United States and he too had tweeted a number of screenshots of live locations of IAF aircraft.
#Indian airforce has heavies up. Il-76MF out of Palam AFS and an Il-78MKI tanker likely out of Delhi/Indira Ghandi AFS. Would expect the tanker is supporting Barrier Combat Air Patrol fighters near the Pakistan border. pic.twitter.com/llwm7BUKr4 — INTELLIPUS (@intellipus) February 27, 2019
Speaking to The Lede, he said – “Those are good questions that I asked myself when I first began monitoring Open source intelligence. What we can see in those images come from the aircraft location and status transponder as it transmits in commercial mode. They do this because the aircraft are often close to commercial airliner routes.”
Jessee went on to add that India’s military aircraft was not in any significant danger from the OSINT live tracking of defence aircraft.
“Since I’m seeing India has shut down much of the airspace, the military aircraft can safely transmit on a military setting that we cannot see. You may also notice that tactical aircraft like fighters do not appear, only large transports and support aircraft. The only way we know of attacks are through social media talking about certain areas, and attempting to filter out misinformation,” he said.
Jessee continued – “It’s not any more a danger to those aircraft because Pakistani air defence radars have nothing to do with transponders. They can see whatever is there based on their own reflected energy, not a transmission from the other aircraft.”
“The reason we look at transponder data is because it can support theories on possible future activities, and confirm or deny speculation. OSINT is not generally used by the military for events as they happen. They use their own closed sources for that. They are much more reliable and secure. In fact, in my own country, large reconnaissance aircraft often broadcast their locations purposefully as a record to show that they are not breaking opposition-controlled airspace- in case they are intercepted or shot down,” he said.
The IAF Version
A senior officer in the India Air Force spoke to The Lede about this on condition of anonymity. To a question whether live tracking of defence aircraft could lead to information warfare, he told The Lede – “Yes and with info getting updated real time and with websites like FlightRadar giving vast amount of information, the secrecy of armed forces does get affected.
As for the Twitter handles doling out such sensitive open source information, he said – “Some are free OSINT handles but one can never say they are neutral and not contacted by ISPR (Inter-Services Intelligence).”
The IAF is also battling the problem of an ageing fleet which cannot help but show up on radars of these flight tracking sites. “It is only now that the fleet is being modernised and we are getting aircraft which can be invisible to these open source websites and other radars,” he added.
The Lede contacted Flight Radar 24 for a response to the issue but is yet to receive one. This article will be updated as and when the firm responds.