Disclaimer: I wrote this in 2011, but it is still relevant, except for MySpace.
In this article I wish to address some of the pros and cons, as well as some of the security issues of the military and its personnel utilizing social media and social networking sites. I will cover this topic utilizing information gleaned from research done on the internet, as well as my personal experiences while deployed to various locations around the globe, both in peace keeping and combat operations.
There are many pros, cons and potential security issues with the military and with military personnel and their families using social networking sites. These sites allow for military members and their family members to keep in touch with their families while being stationed overseas or stateside far from home, as well as during the many deployments we are facing in today’s Global War on Terror.
The first topic I will cover in this paper is going to be the pros of the Department of Defense and their personnel, both military and civilian, utilizing social media. Social media is an opportunity to instantly reach out and connect, regardless of time, space or distance. The Army encourages members of the Army family to use social media to connect and tell their stories, but it also advises everyone to do this in a safe and secure manner.
Social media sites, such as Intellipedia wiki, offer one centralized place where Department of Defense agencies, and even combatant commanders, to share information without playing the back and forth email games. There are security issues to consider with these sites, which will be covered later in this writing.
Social media is attracting many organizations due to the extremely low overhead costs. NASA scientists use Facebook.com in order to collaborate with colleagues at different locations around the country. “While enterprises historically needed to purchase software-based e-mail solutions, they now have the option to leverage an enterprise version of Gmail and pay on a per-user basis,” said Michael Sutton, vice president of security research at Zscaler. (1)
With the younger generation glued to the internet and social networking sites, such as Twitter, Facebook and Myspace, this opens many opportunities to reach out to potential recruits. There are thousands of online followers of the various Department of Defense Facebook pages. These sites allow for the sharing of the latest information on military news, initial entry and re-enlistment bonuses and incentives, as well as the personal experiences of service members. Additionally, this technology is allowing those deployed service members to keep in touch with their friends and family members in a way never experienced before.
These sites have allowed my family and friends to stay in touch and experience some of the same things I have experienced. One such example is my recent 5 month deployment to Cambodia. While there I used Facebook to share pictures of the people I met and the places I visited. I was able to “spend time” with my daughters and read bed time stories to them via Skype. I even had the opportunity to experience a “tea party” with my girls via Skype from almost ten thousand miles away. Skype and Facebook have allowed me to remain a part of my children’s lives, in a way, even when I am thousands of miles from home.
“Social media is a good way to stay in touch with family and friends and stay current with sports teams, news and buddies that are deployed with you that you don’t see on a regular basis,” said Staff Sgt. Randall Cates, an infantryman stationed in Iraq. (2)
Social networking sites allow for the exchange of information among all members of the armed services and assist in the professional development of our service members. An example of this is the password protected web portal known as CompanyCommand. This portal allows junior officers to exchange information and personal experiences, without having to go through the “proper channels.” This site was nearly closed down by the Department of Defense, but was eventually adopted in 2002 as a professional development tool.
“Some of the best lesson-learned sharing, the best idea generation has come from military people using social media to talk to each other,” said Dr. James Jay Carafano, a senior research fellow who studies national and homeland security issues at the conservative Heritage Foundation. (2)
Another example of the benefits of social media and social networking I discovered in my research was a case of a military spouse, recently relocated, searching for health care for her autistic child and posted (tweeted) her inquiry to the Military Health System’s Twitter account. Staff members were able to contact an expert and quickly provide local resources to her. Without the availability of this technology it could have taken days or even weeks to locate the resources she considered necessary in order to support her child’s needs.
The next topic covered will be the cons of the Department of Defense personnel and their families utilizing social media and social networking sites and software.
“Our adversaries are trolling social networks, blogs and forums, trying to find sensitive information they can use about our military goals and objectives,” warned former Sergeant Major of the Army Kenneth O. Preston. “Therefore, it is imperative that all soldiers and family members understand the importance of practicing good operations security measures.”(3)
I inserted this quote here in order to stress how important it is to practice operations security and just plain common sense when posting pictures, comments, videos or running dialogue on sites such as Facebook, Twitter military and Myspace.
There have been too many times where military personnel and their families, members of congress and members of staffs have posted information with no regard for operations security, personal privacy or their own personal safety or that of the force. One such example is the one covered in the first days of the Senior Leader’s Course 03-011 where a soldier had been killed in combat, his buddies had posted information, condolences and comments on Facebook and the soldier’s young spouse, now widow, had found out before the Casualty Notification Team had had the opportunity to advise her of his death in person.
One issue I see with these social media sites is the excessive sharing of personal information. People need to be aware of the fact that there are sick individuals out there surfing these sites looking for their next victim to rape or child to abduct. We need to be aware of the potential danger we are putting our families in when we are posting pictures, comments, phone numbers, etc… on sites such as Facebook, Myspace and Twitter. We need to be aware of the security tools available on most of these sites and educate our families about posting the bare minimum information on their profiles.
Additionally, there are not the firewalls and other security measures in place to prevent hacking into some of the more classified networks. This was brought to light by the more recent publishing of classified documents from the Departments of Defense and State by Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. There were thousands of pages of communiqués and documents with regards to heads of state and the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan leaked to the public putting the lives of our service members in potential danger, as well as straining our relationships with heads of state and dignitaries of the many countries around the world.
“We are facing the most serious economic and national security challenge of the 21st century,” said Robert Carey, the Navy Department’s chief information officer. Because social networking doesn’t adhere to DOD’s paradigm for security, “it presents a major conundrum.” (2)
Other matters to consider are that the technology lacks standards; these tools can make it difficult to comply with federal regulations, sensitive information is on the public net and these tools need a lot of bandwidth. In an increasingly network-centric government and military, a single information leak could jeopardize military operations around the world and homeland security on a grand scale.
On any given day the Department of Defense web has more than seven million users at thousands of locations in over one hundred countries around the world. “It’s a battle between utility and security, but we need to balance both”, said Tom Conway, director of federal development at McAfee. (2)
One of the major things that personnel, military and civilian, need to keep in mind is common sense when posting information, photographs and videos (both personal and work related), to these sites. Operations security should be of the utmost consideration when uploading to sites such as YouTube and Facebook. One such example is from a military service member here at Fort Bragg who posted a video, on Facebook, of an insurgent throwing a satchel charge at his MRAP and it exploding next to his turret. When asked where he got the video the service member stated a member of his unit burned it onto a CD from the unit’s SIPR net and gave it to him. Though the thought of posting this video to an open source may seem innocent, this video came from a classified network and therefore should be treated as classified material. This is just one example of the irresponsible uses of social media by members of the Department of Defense.
In closing there are many benefits to the Department of Defense utilizing social media and social networking sites. In this age of information, getting the word out about all of the good being done by our men and women in uniform, not normally shown in the mainstream media, promotes the advancement of our forces and the mission and intent of the leadership of the military and the government. When sharing this information, as well as maintaining contact with loved ones, we must always keep in mind operations security and the good of the force, the mission and the security of not only our service members, but their families and friends. Additionally, this technology enables deployed service members to keep in touch with their spouses and “interact” with their children, thus keeping up their morale.