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Intelligence agencies once went to great lengths to obtain a potential adversary's military secrets. The U.S. CIA spent years trying to acquire a Soviet T-72 main battle tank, and in the early 1980s it reportedly paid the Afghan mujahideen $5,000 for the first captured AK-74 assault rifle.

Today, the intelligence agency no longer needs to send spies on covert missions, but can instead turn to social media and gaming forums, where a wealth of classified materials are published. Most recently, an alleged Russian pilot published documents on the US Air Force's F-35 Lightning II and F-15 Eagle fighter jets on the social messaging app Telegram.

The news of this story was first reported by the South China Morning Post (SCMP), which cited Chinese military aviation experts who confirmed the authenticity of the documents. According to the document, the now-removed files contained the engine maintenance manual for the F110 engine used in the F-15SA, a variant of the F-15 Eagle in service with Saudi Arabia. In addition, flight and maintenance manuals for the aircraft were published on the Fighterbomber channel on Telegram.

Documents related to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, the US military's advanced fifth-generation fighter jet, were also shared online. While some of the information has been redacted and declassified, it shows how easily leaked information can be shared – and no doubt America's adversaries are watching closely.

“The return to great power competition after 20 years of counterinsurgency has changed the landscape of intelligence collection. Russia, China, North Korea and Iran are working tirelessly to gain access to as much military-relevant data as possible and will use any means necessary to do so,” warned Jonathon Molik, director of the New York National Guard's J2 Intelligence and Security Directorate.

Telegram – The not so hidden spy network

Telegram has become a popular source of military intelligence, especially after Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine – in part because the platform remains widely accessible in Russia. It has also become the preferred network of pro-Kremlin propagandists.

“Telegram has always been a popular communication platform for encrypted messages and has been used in particular by threat groups to exchange data stolen from target organizations during cyberattacks,” explains cybersecurity expert Alexandra Forsyth.

“This creates a sense of authenticity and trustworthiness. Depending on the type of data being promoted and shared, one could argue that financial incentives are the reason for sharing, but security researchers also consider political and ideological agendas,” Forsyth added. “It could be that the threat actor sharing sensitive information wants to be seen as an authority figure in the community, which can lead to collaboration with higher-level groups.”

The changing motivation

What is also notable about the recent leaks of military equipment secrets is the motivation. Intelligence agencies have used various techniques to recruit individuals to pass on secrets and carry out espionage activities. The main pillars of “spy recruitment” can be summarized by the acronym “MICE,” which includes money, ideology, coercion/compromise, and ego.

The players who have published manuals for tanks and aircraft are increasingly doing so to share their opinions with others, and it seems that the recent leaking of confidential information was also largely done for “ego reasons”.

“You can also leak files to demonstrate your expertise or to win arguments online. This type of leak is seen in forums like War Thunder. Some people may not fully understand the serious consequences or underestimate the dangers,” said Tom Jauncey, CEO of digital marketing agency Nautilus Marketing

“Other reasons include ideological ideals or a desire to expose perceived wrongdoing,” Jauncey added. “But that rarely happens with social media leaks. Sometimes leaks are the result of misjudgments or a misguided attempt to gain validation from like-minded people.”

But there may be more to it than that. In the digital age, the democratization of information sharing can lead to the lines between whistleblowers and leakers becoming blurred.

“Some individuals may perceive their actions as a form of digital activism driven by a belief in transparency rather than secrecy. The recent spate of secret leaks across social platforms may reflect a more complex interplay of psychological, cultural and technological factors than the MICE model suggests,” says Jason Levin, founder of media strategy provider Cyber ​​Patterns.

“While ego certainly plays a role in giving individuals the appearance of digital anonymity, the rapid democratization of information sharing also plays a role in these incidents,” Levin added.

Modern social media platforms not only provide a stage for demonstrations of power or dissent, but also create environments where the barriers to sharing sensitive information are dramatically lowered, Levin notes. The confluence of these elements has, in turn, created a perfect storm in which ideological motivations merge with the thrill of subversion and the ease of digital distribution.

“This phenomenon suggests a paradigm shift in how sensitive information is handled and perceived in the digital age,” Levin continued. “In addition, the instant feedback loop that social media provides may further motivate individuals, making information sharing more about instant gratification or protest rather than calculated espionage. Therefore, these incidents may reflect not only personal motivations, but also a growing disconnect between the accessibility of digital platforms and traditional information security protocols.”

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