Russia accused of sending threatening texts to British troops
By Bill Gardner
Daily Telegraph –15 October 2019
British soldiers have been warned "We are watching you" in texts and Facebook messages suspected to have been sent by Russia, the Telegraph has learned. UK troops stationed in Estonia have complained of mystery messages appearing on their social media accounts and mobile phones, sources said.
Officials believe the communications are part of a cyber war designed by Moscow to unsettle and intimidate British troops and their allies. Nearly 1,000 UK personnel are currently deployed in Estonia in a major NATO operation to deter Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. Since British troops first arrived in 2017, a number have received suspicious messages on their Facebook and Twitter accounts along with texts sent to their personal smartphones, sources said.
One serving soldier, who did not wish to be named, told the Telegraph:
"Some of us have been getting weird texts and Facebook messages and so on. They're always written in English, and sometimes they say things like: ‘We're watching you’. It's a bit concerning because they clearly know who we all are. But we've all been trained to expect and ignore this kind of thing. I wouldn't say the Russian masterplan is working."
The Facebook and Twitter messages are thought to be the work of so-called 'bots' – anonymous Russian-linked accounts that regularly churn out Kremlin propaganda. NATO officials have also spoken of fears that Moscow is using portable antennae to hack into soldiers' smartphones to "grab" useful data and contacts. US commanders have previously complained of being "geo-tracked" through their smartphones while in Estonia, while Dutch fighter pilots said their wives and girlfriends were getting nuisance calls from Russian trolls.
The women reportedly answered the phone to Russian-accented men who asked questions such as
"Do you know what your partner is doing there?"
"Wouldn't it be better if he left?"
British troops deployed to Estonia are currently permitted to use their personal smartphones but "proper precautions" are taken to keep them secure from Russian interference, a defence source said. It comes after the Chief of the Defence Staff warned that Britain is "at war every day" due to constant cyber attacks from Russia and elsewhere. General Sir Nick Carter added that distinctions between peace and war "don't exist any longer" in the modern world.
Earlier this year the British Army announced it would engage in social media warfare for the first time, with a new formation tasked with countering Russian malign activity. Dr Julian Lewis MP, chair of the Defence Select Committee, said:
"I think it's actually very helpful of the Russians to show service personnel and others how insecure electronic media are and how important it is to be discreet in what you say while using these systems.
"Estonia is on the front line, a NATO state which may be at risk from an aggressive Russia. That is why our troops are there: all NATO countries thrive by standing together."
A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said:
"Like many members of the public, those in the Armed Forces may on occasion receive communications from unverified sources. All our personnel are equipped with the appropriate guidelines to operate their electronic devices safely and securely."
The Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation did not respond to requests for comment.