In Star Trek TNG: S5:E1 "Redemption, Pt 2" - Commander Sela states:

SELA: Yes I know and so does Picard. He's giving us exactly what we need and he expects us to take it. No. We won't step into Picard's trap. We will disable part of his network here, where they're weakest. We'll direct the energy burst right at the ship with the android Captain.

How did Sela know that Data was in command of the Sutherland? (other than the dramatic out-of-universe reason that it provided further tension to the C plot of Data's ability to command and interact w/ a horrible first officer)

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    To lazy to look up citations to make it a proper answer, but my guess is that they scanned the ships. We knew Star Trek ships can scan for life signs. Maybe the could also detect Data. Or just look for one that doesn't have a life sign in the captain's seat. – Xavon_Wrentaile Oct 7 '18 at 20:43
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    They could have detected a positronic signal aboard the Sutherland and taken an educated guess. – Ham Sandwich Oct 8 '18 at 0:06

As far as I can tell, it was never explained in-universe or even out-of-universe, except as a dramatic plot device as you pointed out. There is no explanation in the episode, nor could I find any on Memory Alpha or Memory Beta.

However, given the efficiency of the Tal Shiar, they did manage to have one of their spy pose as a Vulcan ambassador for quite a long time after all, it isn't too far fetched to think that they managed to steal the information in some ways.

Given that this was a last-minute decision, I would guess that they intercepted the communication between the Enterprise and the Sutherland announcing the field promotion of Data as Captain of the Sutherland for the duration of this mission.

It's even possible, as Valorum pointed in his comment, that this sort of information isn't even classified.

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    It's possible that that sort of information isn't even classified. – Valorum Oct 7 '18 at 14:42
  • @Valorum, note that his assigment as the captain was only temporary. Even if the list of COs and XOs in Starfleet was public, I do not think that it was updated (the public version) in real time and with temporary assignments, especially during combat situation. – Edmund Dantes Oct 8 '18 at 7:24
  • @EdmundDantes - The Federation has an extensive News Service. I feel like that's the sort of thing they'd report. – Valorum Oct 8 '18 at 7:40
  • It is reasonable to assume that the ships in the Federation fleet, as well as Starfleet headquarters, would have been notified of the field promotion; also, the promotion of an android must have created a lot of buzz. I'm at work and cannot check the size of the fleet, but it only takes one spy to report information of tactical or strategic value. – Amy Oct 8 '18 at 17:52
  • Considering that the amount of information accessible today (because of the internet) increased by a huge factor over the last 30 years, I'd imagine that in TNG future, any unclassified information will become accessible immediately. Of course, that's just my expectation, I don't have canon or non-canon sources for that. – Ralf Kleberhoff Oct 10 '18 at 18:41

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