On June 16, it came to light that Twitter was suspending open source intelligence (OSINT) reporters, who use information available on open source websites to track various developments that include military and geopolitical movements. The suspensions were issued with no apparent warning or prior notification of any kind. Soon, a screenshot of email, received by ELINTNews, one of the OSINT reporters that was suspended, revealed that the move was made because Twitter received correspondence that his content was “in violation of Indian law”.
News18 reached out independently to Twitter, with queries on the nature of correspondence that they received, and exactly what nature of violation did the suspended accounts enforce. Responding to this, a Twitter spokesperson said, “We do not comment on individual accounts for privacy and security reasons. Our policies prohibit running multiple accounts and engaging in spammy behaviour.”
The accounts that have/had been suspended over the past three days include ELINTNews, IntelCrab, PakistanIntell, KashmirIntel, and BeepDelete, all of who belong to the open source intelligence community. NatSecJeff, who also received a similar legal notice from Twitter, was not served with a suspension, after he deleted specific India-related tweets that were flagged by Twitter. While ELINTNews and IntelCrab's accounts are operational again, others still remain suspended, and there is no clarity so far on the extent to which these accounts have violated Twitter’s content policy, and whether they have actually breached any safety protocol of any sort.
All of these suspensions appear to have been served based on a similar legal order that Twitter received, pertaining to tweets that they made regarding Indian military airspace activity. This sparked off speculations among the OSINT reporters that the Indian government may have instructed the suspension of these accounts, for reasons related to national defence and security in light of the heightened tensions between India and Pakistan in February 2019. Revealing military aircraft positions during sensitive times may introduce a higher scale of risk, and introduce questions regarding the authenticity of information.
Last month, the Deccan Chronicle reported an investigation by the Hyderabad, India-based GreatGameIndia, which stated that each or most of these accounts, which report using OSINT, are actually spreading “fake news” and are operated by “retired Pakistani officers”. This report, which has so far not been validated, brought to light an issue that was recently reported by ThePrint, which stated that OSINT accounts happened to have reported the whereabouts of multiple Indian military aircrafts during the surgical strike by India in Balakot, Pakistan, in the aftermath of the February 2019 terrorist attack in Pulwama, India.
While such an act may be deemed as a potential risk to national security (especially during times of heightened tensions), it is also important to consider the source of OSINT. These accounts in question reported air traffic and movement data from civilian, live information sites such as flightradar24, which provide real-time air traffic information based on civilian airspace radar. Military aircrafts, meanwhile, switch to specialised transponders that use a private, military radar to track air traffic.
As a result, it is unclear if the Indian government enforced Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, which empowers the Central Government of India to block specific websites or webpages in the interest of the defense, safety, sovereignty and integrity of the country. This brings the focus back on why Twitter issued sudden suspensions to OSINT accounts, all in the same timeframe, and with similar notices.
It is interesting to note that the email correspondence between ELINTNews and Twitter, which was acquired by ThePrint, is the same as the one that Faran Jeffery, who operates the NatSecJeff account on Twitter, posted about and showed us too. Here are the two email transcripts, attached below:
Jeffery (NatSecJeff), who is also the deputy director and the desk head of South Asia at the Islamic Theology of Counter Terrorism (ITCT), corroborated Twitter’s statement on these suspensions. “IntelCrab didn't receive any correspondence. His account was mass reported and Twitter algorithm checked it and found out he had another account he maintained but didn't use much, so he got suspended. He sacrificed his other account and got reinstated. ELINT got the official correspondence telling him he violated indian law, probably because of mass reporting. He also maintained a backup account, and so he got suspended and he sacrificed his backup account to be reinstated,” Jeffery told News18.
However, he also noticed a discrepancy in the way Twitter has handled the situation. He said, “BeepDelete didn't receive any correspondence, (but) he had a backup account which was discovered by Twitter and hence the suspension. But he hasn't heard back from Twitter yet, which is unusual, since others received prompt responses.”
Jeffery further confirmed to us that Twitter has not issued any official communication as to which Indian law was violated by these accounts and their corresponding tweets. He said, “No one was told which Indian law we actually violated. The tweets of mine that were reported and were sent to me by Twitter, half of them were not even related to India in any way - instead they were related to Venezuela, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, ISIS, Taliban, etc. The ones that were India-related (Kashmir militancy) were then deleted by me.”
Given the sensitive nature of the issue, it remains to be seen if the Indian government, or national security authorities, issue any statement pertaining to these purported “violations”. As of now, a fair few members of the OSINT community are still suspended from Twitter, apparently without any clear correspondence from Twitter. Given Twitter’s official crackdown reason being the removal of duplicate accounts from the platform, it remains to be seen whether other communities (and not just OSINT reporters) are also targeted with similar suspensions in the months to come.